James Dyson is grousing about a shortage of engineers and wants more government pork to help with that. A word in your shell-like, James. You are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Now firstly, engineering and engineers have a problem generally. They are engineers because they have an interest in how stuff works, and so they aren’t always the most articulate or the easiest to rub along with. In the early days of British engineering, this was not such a problem because you could solve a lot of engineering problems on your own with drive and application, so Britain has an illustrious history of talented Victorian and earlier engineers. Thomas Telford, Isambard Brunel, Robert Stephenson, Michael Faraday, Oliver Lodge, James Watt, Frank Whittle, Alan Turing, Ernest Rutherford, Alan Blumlein, William Crookes – and that list is just off the top of my head, with no help from Google apart for checking the first names 🙂
Tragically, engineers aren’t easy to work with for many people. They tend towards cantankerous crabbiness, they favour purity and precision over practical compromise and ‘good enough’. In its heyday, The Firm where I used to work concentrated these sorts in its research facility. Let’s just say that some of my colleagues in those early years were serious geeks, and often they were unbalanced characters. Some of them watched far too much Star Trek and spent too much time indoors. I believe much human progress is made by people who have something wrong with them, the guy who invented the wheel was probably a nutcase in some way. The broad swatch of humanity, the ones who do what the society norm of the time is, aren’t usually the ones who make the inventions to improve the common weal. Originators are usually the outliers – they make most of the change in human society, because they see things differently. It’s not just engineering either – pretty much across the field of human endeavour, it is the single-minded, the passionate, the eccentric who make the running.
Interviewing engineers is always difficult. In the past companies had engineers interviewing engineers, which at least meant there was some common language, and the interviewers knew what the challenges were in making whatever the company made, and could qualify the skills interviewees claimed to have. I was lucky enough, in the three successful job interviews I have had in my life as an external candidate, to be interviewed by real people from the departments I was applying to.
That’s all considered effete and non-PC these days, because the downside of having real people who know about what they are doing interview people is you get a lack of consistency. People favour their own characteristics, and tend to hire in their own image. Now it’s more important to get your equality and diversity tickboxes ticked than to have an effective process of interviewing people by the people they will work with, so many firms contract out the process to recruitment agencies. These take away the diversity tickbox bother and seem to run a computer process that greps the unfortunate candidates’ CVs for keywords of the particular job at hand.
There are two problems with that – one is every firm is looking for people who have exactly the mix of technologies they want, to be able to hit the road running. They have stepped back from the process of developing their engineers. When I started work, although I was going to work with the electronics and systems of broadcast engineering, in the induction process I learned not only about the specialisms, but how a programme was made, what the issues were for the camera ops and lighting people. I also learned how to do oxy-acetylene welding and how of anneal and harden steels and why these processes existed and how to use a lathe and shaping machine, building on what I had learned at school. These were not because I was going to be doing this day to day – I have never welded or turned anything professionally, but so that I could see the wider setting of what I was going to be doing, and so that as a graduate engineer I had an awareness of the issues facing the people who would be using the gear I was working on or who I would be asking to provide services to me to make things mechanical.
These companies, both the BBC and The Firm later on, invested in people before the trite bullshit of Investing In People™[ref]Just read the turgid corporate duckspeak and BS, anyone with an ounce of common sense can see that people who write “Investors in People specialises in transforming business performance through people. Our mission is to help you achieve the results you want by focusing all our work on your business objectives, and acting as a critical friend so that you maintain continuous improvement. At the heart of Investors in People is the Standard, a framework of best practice that’s outcome focused: it outlines what you need to achieve but never prescribes how, making it truly flexible regardless of your size or sector. ” are passionless droids who believe that process is a substitute for action. Give me the messy randomness of people trying to do the best they can over outcome focused frameworks of best practice any day. Process shields the incompetent from being pilloried for their cock-ups – culminating in the ‘lessons will be learned (but nobody will lose their job)’ when some organisation screws up royally. If the Ermine were God for a Day I’d dictate that all process documents self-immolate 🙂 [/ref] had been invented by management consultants. These firms, at the time, were driven by values, and they knew that they had to invest in skills to apply to the unusual requirements of their fields of work. Some of them had training facilities, all of which have now been contracted out or disbanded. It takes time, and occasionally you lose out is someone moves on to another company, though occasionally you gain if someone moves to your firm.
Dyson is a showman, but he’s also part of the problem. If he wants more British engineers he needs to invest in them – support them financially through university in return for the right grades and subjects, offer them sandwich year terms at Dyson so they can learn a both the technology and the ethos of his company. In short, take them from A level, not bitch about there not being enough of the right kind of postgrads. Let’s face it, if we want veg to grow at The Oak Tree, we plant the seeds months in advance and water the damn things, we don’t get to harvest time and start moaning that all we have is a plot of thistles and where the bloody hell are all the fully grown vegetables we’d like to harvest that day. Somewhere British industry seems to have forgotten these fundamentals – presumably if they have the Investors In People tick boxes ticked it’ll be all right on the night.
There was a recent programme, Make Me a German, where a UK journalist went to work for Faber-Castell in Nürnberg. Germany still appears to have an industrial training system that UK companies seem to have given up, as evidenced by the 20-year old who was training for Faber-Castell. Perhaps this explains why Germany still has a reputation for engineering across a broad spectrum. Particularly where it interacts with mechanical stuff, engineering still has a lot of craft in it.
Oh and James Dyson, as a personal grouse, why the hell is all the gear you make so damn noisy? As I get older it gets harder to pull apart the bones in the inner ear to protect the hairy preamplifier from damage. Okay my Dyson vacuum cleaner is over 10 years old but makes a dreadful and screechy racket; it always did from new. If I go into a public bog with an Dyson Airblade hand dryer I live with just shaking off the water that subject myself to the noise. Did nobody test the Airblade in a tiled room as it would be used before you produced a device chucking out so much nasty high-frequency noise? Although I have never experienced it I would hate to think what a Dyson fan sounds like for £300 – with fans big and slow-moving trumps small and fast-moving, think ceiling fan as opposed to a computer fan. People have to live with your products too, it’s not all about the efficiency!