Time to engineer a recovery

Published: 13 Nov 2012

During the recent recession and downturn, UK employment levels have thankfully remained resilient, but as we move into a new phase of economic recovery, minds will turn to where the new jobs are to come from that will propel UK PLC forward.

While Britain is recognised for its expertise in software and ‘invisibles’ such as the creative arts and social media, can these sectors be the engines that will power future growth or should we be looking more to that often forgotten sector – engineering?

Yes, say eminent voices such as Sir James Dyson, best known for his innovative vacuum cleaners and now a firm advocate for greater governmental focus on hardware and engineering.

Like many others, Sir James is irritated by what he sees as the very British attitude to a sector of the economy that in many other countries, such as Germany, is a predominant economic force.

So he’s decided to do something about it by investing in a centre that will provide a home for start-up firms that actually produce something you can see and touch, rather than hidden software codes for mobile phone apps.

"The hardware trade around the world is growing at a much faster rate than social media or anything that's going on in Silicon Roundabout," he points out.

But while government funding has been made available for initiatives like Techcity in East London, which has become a catalyst for web start-up companies, it has been sadly absent from his own scheme, something he feels is undoubtedly a mistake.

And to those who feel that his engineering focus makes him something of a high-end technology Luddite, he points out that the success of ‘sexy’ Apple is based not on software, but on hardware – iMacs, iPads and iPods.

He believes it is tangible hardware that creates jobs, which in turn creates exports, and which in turn creates wealth. He questions whether the likes of Internet giants such as Google and

Facebook have the capability to do that on a similar scale.

But for hardware to be created in the first place we need engineers, and for that, a production line is needed that generates them year on year.

Sadly, Britain is producing far too few engineering graduates for Dyson’s liking, a historic error that has led to a current shortfall of some 50,000 engineers. This is a figure that Dyson thinks will quadruple to 200,000 in just a few years.

To put this skill shortage in perspective, Dyson offers up the comparison with the Philippines, which manages to produce more engineers than we do from our universities. Consequently, most postgraduate researchers in British universities come from overseas. The fear is that when they finish, they will simply take their ideas with them either back to their homeland or somewhere else where engineering skills are more sought after.

Does Dyson have a valid argument that hardware generates more jobs than software and similar technologies?

For now the glamour of social media and software still seems to be the magnet for today’s young people seeking employment, but perhaps with the intervention of Dyson and his kind, at last the UK’s production line of engineers will start moving a little faster.


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