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The inspiration for engineering

25 February 2014

Graham Mackrell, managing director of Harmonic Drive, suggests what businesses might do to ameliorate the UK's skills shortage.

Graham Mackrell

Irrespective of one’s political preferences, we have to recognise that UK government is working hard to bring manufacturing back to the UK.

Similarly, the UK’s shortage of engineers is disappointing, but there is a clear strategy to improve. The recent Perkins Review called on parents, teachers, employers and government to unite and inspire young people to delve into the wide world of engineering. 

I’ve been speaking out on behalf of UK innovation for years, but the lack of young people in the industry is still disheartening. However, it’s not enough to feel disappointed; one has to ask why this is the case, otherwise you can implicitly become part of the problem rather than the solution. 

Our schools are filled with youngsters who routinely use complex and sophisticated technologies in their daily lives. So why is there such a disconnect between young people and engineering – the discipline that gave them these technologies? 

I believe that the root cause is a fundamental misunderstanding in schools about what engineering really is; a problem that is particularly endemic in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) curriculum, in particular. There’s so much more to industry than is recognised in classrooms. 

For instance, Harmonic Drive’s motion control products are used in the cameras of underwater vehicles, on bomb disposal robots and in military fighter jets. Not to mention the presence we have in the broadcast sector – real engineering helped David Attenborough keep his cameras in the Polar Regions for long enough to successfully film Frozen Planet, for instance. 

So where do we go from here? How do we demonstrate to more young people that engineering is a genuinely great career path? We’re working hard to spread a simple message to talented youngsters: engineers change the world. Far from being a dry topic, engineering couldn’t be a more vibrant, creative and colourful part of today’s business landscape. 

The great news is that the UK has a rapid pace of technological innovation. The bad news is that because of this, as in the IT sector, by the time students leave university their understanding of the industry could be outdated.

But where there is a will, there is a way, and at Harmonic Drive we have just initiated a programme to work with final year and postgraduate students to provide up to date robotics and transmission knowledge to help combat this very problem.

If the current generation of engineers grew up without the range of portable applied electronics technology that is available now, then I can’t help but wonder what can be achieved once the engineering skills gap is closed.

Apple’s Jonathan Ive, the man credited with the industrial design behind the iPhone and iPod is from Staffordshire, the home county of Harmonic Drive UK. He’s the kind of engineer we can point to as motivation for a new generation for whom mobile technology is second nature.  

By drawing inspiration from the likes of Ive, and the kind of applications in which Harmonic Drive is active, the UK STEM curriculum can communicate to its students what engineering is really about. I would call on other SMEs and small businesses to engage with their local communities to support this change. It can’t all be left to government. 

Innovation heritage 
The UK has a heritage of innovation. However, despite being one of our greatest exports, our knowledge base has been eroded in recent years by the rapid growth of cheap labour markets and the natural loss of the older generation to retirement. The government's announcement of £49m in funding to address the skills shortage is, therefore, welcome news.

It's encouraging that an engineering week at Scarborough University recently attracted a high turnout of young students, enabling them to interact with fun demonstrations and talk to friendly faces in what is often perceived to be an intimidating industry. It's less encouraging however, to see that some armchair critics have criticised the government for finally making positive steps to unite the disparate engineering and manufacturing communities.

So let’s not leave it all to big business and government. Smaller businesses, just like Harmonic Drive UK, can make steps to ensure a future stream of engineering talent is secured. Perhaps then we can be justified in our armchair criticism.

Graham Mackrell's contribution this week is in response to an item that ran in last week's newsletter.


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