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Buddy, can you spare a dime?

12 March 2009

Engineering – to be more precise, advanced engineering - was in the news last week as trade & investment minister, Lord Davies of Abersoch reminded us that our advanced engineering exports accounted for a whopping third of the UK’s total annual overseas revenues – some one hundred and nine billion pounds, in fact, according to 2007 figures.

Speaking to an invited audience gathered at the great hall of the Institution of Civil Engineers in London, the recently ennobled Lord Davies (a labour peer and a member of Gordon Brown’s coterie of ex-banker friends) was launching yet another government initiative to promote British engineering prowess overseas.

So, was this yet another plate of sops proffered to our floundering engineering sector and a lot of expenses-paid trips for company executives to exotic climes (apparently including Brazil, Russia, India and China, this time around)? It is clearly important that we undertake these trade missions and one hopes for positive outcomes, but it is difficult not to be cynical about their promotion, particularly at a time when manufacturing infrastructure remains in such a precarious state back home.

Lord Davies mentioned companies like Rolls-Royce and Jaguar Land Rover as leading the drive overseas. He also said that many companies in the UK sector are small and medium sized businesses that form a vital part of the global supply chains for firms such as Boeing and Airbus. Quite so, but aren’t these businesses also currently those that are now crying out for help, simply to keep afloat?

Perhaps Lord Davies would be better off going back to his masters to persuade them that charity, first of all, begins at home, and that unless the government is minded to put some fiscal measures into effect now to shore up the Jaguar Landrovers of this world, not to mention their many suppliers, that is the erstwhile viable, hi-tech companies that have simply become victims of circumstance, then we’ll have little advanced engineering to peddle at home, let alone overseas.

Meanwhile, over at the London Science Museum, that other hothouse of advanced engineering – Formula One racing – is assuring visitors that it doesn’t just worship at the temple of glamour and extremely fast cars. No less recession-proof than the rest of us, F1 is facing a bit of a problem at the moment as sponsors draw in their purse strings. Its participation in the ‘FastForward’ exhibition, however, which runs until April 5 2010, is to show the world that it continues to be a very serious contributor to engineering advancement in just about every corner of human life.

Twenty examples have been chosen, ranging from carbon composite fibre structures that will provide greater protection for military personnel in conflict situations, to the ‘BabyPod II’, a self-contained structure similar in design to that of an F1 driver’s cockpit, that offers a lightweight and robust means of rapidly transporting sick infants to hospital. Let’s hope it all restores some gloss to this fascinating industry.

A couple of weeks ago in this column we were congratulating the success of young women in engineering, an annual competition run by the IET and its sponsors. This week, Sue Hewitt, principal of Milecastle Consultancy has come back with some hard facts about women and work, following an analysis of two recent reports from Opportunity Now and the Greater London Authority.

According to Ms Hewitt, if you are a woman you'd be better off living anywhere else in Europe but the UK, perhaps choosing Estonia as amongst your best bets. You'd be paid better and have more in common with your colleagues. The UK has the biggest pay gap of any of the 27 EU countries, and our employment rates for women are lower than The Netherlands, Finland and Estonia. Moreover, the gender pay gap is wider in London than in the rest of the country.

If you are a woman planning to get to the board room then you'll get off to a good start as you are more likely than your male student colleagues to get good GCSE grades and a degree. However it goes downhill from there. The data says your best bet if you want a directorship is to look for an older established business in Wales or the South West, probably in social care or health.

You could also plump for the civil service, always considered a ‘good job for a girl’ and still achieving 27.5% women in their top management. You'll stand a better chance of getting parity with men if you're under 30 as well, then you'll be one women standing next to 2.6 men. If you want good boardroom odds then don't even bother looking at the FTSE 100, the police or the universities. With 11%, 9% and 16% respectively of their senior management being women you stand more chance of becoming a judge (18.7% are women).

So, despite the euphoria of the recent IET awards and the sterling efforts of the Women in Engineering Society, if you happen to be a woman and an engineer working in the UK at this moment in time, things probably appear a bit bleak. Let’s hope there are better things around the corner.

Les Hunt

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