Roundtable: BrightSparks judges discuss the challenges facing electronics

After the BrightSparks 2018 judging process at the RS Components HQ in London in March, Electronics Weekly and the other judges took the opportunity to  discuss the state of UK engineering today.

The resulting debate generated much food for thought. We opened with a conversation about the shortfall in engineering skills and what the industry can do to recruit and retain engineers.

Who wants to be an engineer?

RS Components CEO Lindsley Ruth

Lindsley Ruth, CEO at RS Components, said that the shortfall is a western problem and not specific to the UK. He contrasted the retention problem with the situation in China and Hong Kong, where engineering students who come out of college are highly disciplined and focused.

He pointed out that the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology has facilities that match some of the top semiconductor companies in the Bay area of the US.

“We are facing a shortfall because students don’t understand engineering. It’s viewed as mundane,” he said.

“James Dyson says that the problem with UK education is that it’s not convincing students that engineering isn’t just about structured design – we’re trying to solve problems and add value to society. There’s a lack of understanding and too much stereotyping,” said Ruth.

“The ecosystem is lacking – government, universities, schools, business, venture capital – that creates an entrepreneurial system that promotes the incubation of ideas. The UK is highly fragmented and everyone has a different agenda,” he said.

From left: Paul Hide, Graham Curren and Jude Pullen

Graham Curren, CEO at Sondrel, said the problem starts earlier in a student’s life. “Although there are good things going on in schools, primary schools are not interested in talking about STEM subjects,” he said.

He acknowledged that “it’s hard for schools, which are pushed to get the grades,” adding: “Finding students is very hard. Most UK companies are small-to-medium-sized and don’t have the resources to go on the road, so they can’t find them.”

Martin Woodhead, executive vice‑president at Ensigma, Imagination Technologies, identified engineering’s image problem as a factor, “I think it’s partly the perception of engineering – it’s viewed as mundane and doesn’t have the same status as law or medicine. I go to Bali and there, it’s the engineers that people look up to,” he said.

Technologist Jude Pullen wondered whether schools are geared up to cater for students like him. “I’m dyslexic, and physics was all about rote learning and recycling equations. I’m not blaming schools, but I suspect we’re losing a lot of people who are thinking, ‘I can’t do that, so I won’t be a good engineer’,” he said.

“The kids who are building things with their hands; solving problems or designing things for friends and family – these are the people who should be going the distance. When I recruit engineers, what I look for is a mindset and not the grades.”

Teachers need to be talent-scouts

Isabella Mascarenhas, IET’s young professionals engagement manager, who returned for a second year as a BrightSparks judge, agreed.

From the back, Adam Boulton, Peter Hannon, Martin Woodhead and Isabella Mascarenha

“There’s not enough practicality in the classroom. Where’s the hands-on experimentation that ought to draw out natural-born engineers who might not be so confident with the written stuff?” she asked.

There’s a big misconception that engineering is a man in the hard‑hat. There’s a lack of clarity in schools as to what subjects you need in order to go into engineering,” said Mascarenhas.

Appreciating apprentices

Peter Hannon, managing director of Harting UK, said engineers are held in high esteem in Germany. “We shouldn’t forget apprenticeships – they are a good way of bringing people into engineering,” he pointed out.

Paul Hide, director of market engagement and membership at techUK and another returning judge, agreed.

“I know there’s been a lot of criticism about the government apprenticeship levy, but it’s an opportunity for business to make the best of it,” he said.

“It’s vocational-based learning and we need to move away from the assumption that engineers need to go to university. I think the world is changing. We should grasp the opportunity; be clear on how we want to use it, and engage in the dialogue.

“There is some negativity around the way the apprenticeship levy is being applied and business has a responsibility to change that narrative,” he added.

Restrtictive regulations

Adam Boulton, CTO of BlackBerry Business Technology Solutions, wondered whether the UK’s highly regulated environment is stifling innovation, particularly “when you look at the risk appetite of UK companies compared with those from the US or China,” he said.

“It’s so much easier to innovate when you have fewer standards. Regulations and policies suck the life out of innovation. When you want that innovation and excitement there’s no better way to kill it than to introduce all the standards and policies,” he said.

“I’d be amazed if an Uber was developed in the UK. Our emphasis on health and safety slows things down. When you want to develop product, you need your legal team, IP and patent team and a trademark team – and it slows everything down.”

Curren and Mascarenhas discussed post-graduate routes into engineering.Curren is worried about the pull on graduates. “When I graduated, most of my peers went to GEC or Marconi or Smiths. There was a clear channel and a clear graduate programme. I don’t know where people go to nowadays,” he said.

Mascarenhas was more optimistic. “The landscape is changing,” she said. “I see many students graduating and setting up their own companies to develop things they have thought of. It’s very different from the days when you were employed by someone.”

Curren also worries about how companies find the graduate engineer they might want. “There are 8,000 companies in the UK with more than 250 employees – there aren’t that many employers, so employers have to find a way of showing their jobs to graduates and attracting them. And investing in a graduate is expensive.”

Hannon pointed to the rise in entrepreneur start-ups. “The route to market is very different – you can sell things on the web, whereas once it would be via a big company.”

How to motivate millenials

The discussion then turned to the attitude of millennials to work.

“We have a very different work ethic in the UK. It’s not as driven or as go‑getting as it is in other countries,” said Mascarenhas.

“Are there any good initiatives to help students become more aware of the good companies out there?” asked Pullen. “When I went to CERN, I spoke to one of the engineers and half‑jokingly asked if they took on interns. He said, ‘I’d give an internship to anyone who had the initiative to get in touch with me, but they don’t, because they think it’s impossible’.”

Woodhead wondered if lack of motivation is an issue, because “Millennials have a very comfortable existence”. This prompted Pullen to ask: “How can you create meaningful discomfort?”

“It’s very frustrating,” said Hannon. “We have this dichotomy, where we have never been surrounded by, and engaged with, so much technology, yet we are struggling to get the number of engineers we need to come through.”

This concern took Woodhead back to worries about routes into engineering after university. “One problem that concerns me is the number of students that go to university to do engineering and don’t go into engineering. One university has 50% of its engineering students going to the finance industry or management consultancy. It seems such a waste.”

But Hide pointed out, “this country is very much service-based”. The solution, he said, was that government must take a lead in creating an ecosystem where business will invest.

“There should be a clear government lead on skilling up, and an ecosystem where businesses can see a return to encourage investment. That’s where this country is struggling. And we have to find a point of difference – it’s no good us trying to be China or the US,” he said.

“Is it maybe time that education started to focus on producing people who are employable rather than being well-educated?” asked Curren. “And is there anything the industry can do to encourage engineers, like James Dyson has done?”

Catching the imagination of children

The discussion moved on to ask what initiatives we might find that would encourage more engineers.

Pullen suggested the net should be widened for encouraging younger children to think about engineering. “We’re catering for one kind of kid,” he said. “If there were other ways of addressing the creative, hands-on kids, that would be really helpful. Perhaps companies like RS Components could create a junior site or offer discounts to anyone buying from a school email address,” he suggested.

RS Components partners Barclays’ Eagle Labs, with the DesignSpark online community of makers, students and design engineers supporting the labs, Ruth pointed out.

The company operates a massive Titan 2 truck that houses a touring education centre and has run events such as ‘Big Bang’, where more than 1,200 students got hands‑on experience of products such as Raspberry Pi, as well as automation, control and robotics products.

“We have internship and apprenticeship programmes,” added Ruth, “but university is too late – you’ve got to get the kids when they’re 12 or 13, and that’s the appeal of our truck.”

RS Components also plans to offer summer internships for teachers, said Ruth. “We’ll probably offer 20-30 places.”

“Anything that inspires people to think about this sector is a good thing,” said Hide. “If you could get a situation where every secondary school had an engineering partner, who would come in and talk to kids in STEM subjects about the opportunities and bring in some of their younger engineers to talk about their work – if every school had an engineering mentor, that would start to make a difference.”

Curren noted that, “Music is very good at offering peripatetic services. Maybe engineering and science should have somebody who goes into schools and demonstrates robotics or the explosions that teachers are no longer allowed to do. Maybe we would get more excitement.”

Mascarenhas said there is a huge demand for such activities. “We run an event called EngFest, and so many schools want to take part, that we have to hold a ballot. We do First Lego, a Faraday Challenge Day and other activities: 205 schools wanted to take part, but we had room for only 100. The feedback was off the scale and the kids were screaming with excitement.”

Engineering could certainly benefit from more of that.

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