Where have all the engineers gone?

In this article, contributed for Eureka's 30th Anniversary, Richard Noble, Director of the Bloodhound Project, asks what must be done to encourage the next generation of engineers.

January 2005: Holder of the World Land Speed Record Andy Green and I are up before Lord Drayson, MoD Minister of Defence Equipment and Support. The Americans are threatening our ThrustSSC supersonic land speed record with a new challenge and there is just time in our lives to do one more highly innovative supersonic car. It's going to be the greatest ever and it's called Bloodhound SSC. Our meeting with Lord Drayson is crucial – we need an EJ200 Eurofighter engine, the most advanced military engine anywhere and the Minister, if asked nicely, might just oblige.

Of course, it went wrong. The friendly meeting with the Minister remained friendly, but there was no instant gratification, just a polite switch of conversation which suggested that the meeting was drawing to a close. And then Lord Drayson said something which changed all our lives – for ever.

"You can help us." He went on to explain that the MOD's biggest problem, apart from money, was its inability to recruit engineers . He had thought about it long and hard and had come to the conclusion that we needed to revisit the 1960s – a time when the country had an incredible aerospace industry creating highly innovative prototypes like Vulcan , TSR2, Lightning and Concorde. This was a time when all schoolkids were obsessed with new technology and many wanted to be test pilots or engineers. This resulted in a generation or two that provided a steady supply of engineers. But now something had changed and the MOD was struggling.

He said: "I want you to create an iconic project and run it through all the schools to encourage a new generation of engineers." I immediately accepted and that put us all in deep trouble.

The first thing to do was to find out what we could. The Lord Leitch Report of 2005 had raised the original concerns. The failure of companies to run traditional apprentice schemes in the last Century meant that skills now resided in the 40 to 60 years age group and there was little to replace them in the 25 to 40 range. This hit home dramatically with the skill-dependent aerospace industry, which woke up late to the fact that 60% of its skilled workforce would be gone in 20 years.

But the problem went a lot deeper than just the apprentices. We heard stories of teachers telling their classes that engineering was an underpaid, dirty business which had now been passed on to the Chinese and Indians and that today's schoolchildren should head for the media or law. If the career decision was taken to be an engineer, then you could always opt out after graduation and pursue a career in Financial Services . One well known banker was enthusiastic, saying: "We welcome engineers: they are highly-disciplined, highly numerate and great problem solvers."

It seemed too that engineers hadn't really helped themselves – their image was poor and there seemed to be an over emphasis on great engineers of the past. Most people would have great difficulty in naming a famous living engineer. It was as if the Engineers had totally ignored the huge growth of the media industry – engineers didn't feature in soaps, there was no engineering equivalent of The Archers or Farming Today. It was as if the engineers, the great innovators, failed to realise that they needed to promote themselves or face complete loss of identity, or even extinction.

I had noticed this when we did the ThrustSSC project and were the first to break the sound barrier on land. Our business was to create media exposure, convert that into finance via sponsorships and build our 100,000thp car. We had carried out extensive research, created a safe design solution and progressed into the car build. At that most exciting point, the media coverage dried. I panicked and went to see editors and journalists. They explained that their readers would never understand the technology involved in the build and it would be better if they let us get on with the high technology bit without coverage until, of course, the car started its run programme – then they would promise to be there to cover the noise, flame, violence and so on.

The BBC man was more forthcoming; it seemed there was an unwritten rule in the BBC that the mental age of the audience is 10. It was therefore important not to include even simple technology because audience share would be lost. So the BBC would give us 'Tomorrow's World' features, but that would be all. Our only hope lay with the then emerging internet and we built a 800 page website. With the website we were able to log the pages read by the followers. And what did they read in huge volumes? – the technical pages!

The ThrustSSC website, developed by Jeremy Davey, was one of the largest in the world at that time, running 59 million visits/300 million pages in 1997 – making it 30 times the size of a top ranking Formula 1 team today.

We had it right for once. We learned that the public love innovation and they love engineering. Today's media is still locked in the old time warp and a huge opportunity is being missed. Make a point of looking at today's BBC programmes and note the emphasis on primitive vocal contests and cooking – all simple material. Even Top Gear is dumbed down to focus on mockery and destruction – again simple, low-risk material.

Bloodhound is there to break the mould and help make the change. The website runs 160,000 pages a month to 203 countries and we don't yet have the car. Sales and donations run at £240,000/a year – this doesn't exactly typify a minority site.

I remember a hugely embarrassing episode: The ThrustSSC project concluded with a huge global success – Andy Green was given an OBE, but the engineers were not recognised for an incredible national achievement carried out in very difficult circumstances. Later, I found myself with the President of the Board of Trade and offered the project as a global trade and education promotion. She responded: "Do we have to?" I said "No" and left the room as quickly as I could.

In retrospect, the whole episode was completely understandable – the Government was more interested in deregulating the City and promoting the post industrial society. This year, the Governor of the Bank of England apologised to the TUC and admitted responsibility for the City failures. Bloodhound attends some 100 exhibitions a year and we meet tens of thousands of people. There is a huge demand for the return of engineering and innovation.

Perhaps that's the reason why Bloodhound education has been taken on by 4,000 UK schools, colleges and universities.

Perhaps we are seeing a huge resurgence in the popularity of engineering and innovation? Perhaps this time, engineers will start promoting themselves their innovation, their skills and their learning? Perhaps this time, the media will learn something!

Richard Noble

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Do you have any comments about this article?
Any kind of resurgance in engineering is a good thing without doubt. I fear though that even if more people study it at university it won't result in more people entering the engineering sector. The biggest issue at the moment is low pay. Many don't enter the sector because of it. Others work abroad, enter management, finance etc. Those that do enter quickly look to move into management or other sectors.

Comment Engineer, 25/08/2013

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