Contrary to what the entrepreneur and Apprentice presenter says, we need more engineers in business
The Observer, Sunday 19 June 2011
Reality TV is anything but. If The Apprentice is to be believed, our economy will only recover if we all don pinstripe, spout jargon, shout over one another and deliver a "killer pitch". Fast, furious… and fired. Also, so it seems, there's no place for engineers. "I've never met an engineer who can turn his hand to business," pronounced Lord Sugar last week.
Safe to say I disagree with him – engineers can lead successful businesses. In fact, 15% of FTSE 100 companies have engineers on their board. They are analytical problem solvers – it's why the City loves engineers. I wish it didn't. I'm trying to lure another 400 bright minds to our Wiltshire laboratories.
But Britain has a very misplaced view of engineers. They're either seen as eccentric boffins who speak in algebraic formula, or fixers, sorting faulty cookers, broken-down cars. All important but, at base, engineering is about problem-solving and inventing, making lives better through developing new technology.
British companies such as Rolls-Royce, ARM and JCB are world leaders and they create jobs, technology and cash. And yet those who trade for a living still hold more respect than those who make things. But unless we invent and make more, Britain will have nothing left to export and our deficit will continue to grow. I understand the value of a good deal, but it's a shame our trains now need to be made in Germany rather than Derby.
India, China, France and Germany value their engineers and Barack Obama has announced plans to train an additional 10,000 US engineers every year (though I am sure he'll need more). In these countries, engineers lead businesses and often have a seat at the government table. Sony founder Akio Morita was astounded at how few engineers there were leading British businesses.
China, having already overtaken Japan as the world's second-biggest economy, is growing at around 9% a year and could overtake the US by 2030. No longer content with "Made in China", it has to be "Engineered in China". Its government knows the importance of creating intellectual property, which is one reason behind its staggering output of fresh engineering graduates every year – 300,000 against our own 20,000.
Engineers are behind the cars we drive, the pills we pop and the way we power our homes. They create new technology and appealing products to export. But it's a long-term endeavour. And Britain, if it's to stay in the game, needs to invest now.
My charity conducts workshops in schools and universities across the UK. We encourage young people to find out how things work, brains and hands in tandem. I think Lord Sugar would be impressed by some these bright sparks. They want to make things but they are commercially savvy too. They've conceived the idea, developed a prototype and understand why it works better than anything else: who better to sell the concept?
Not every idea can be a winner, but some are. Yusuf Muhammed, a winner of our student design award, now sells his invention, Automist, a tap that detects a fire and emits a fine mist to put it out. The idea is on its way to commercial success.
And let's not forget that Lord Sugar has a lot to thank British engineers for, not least because John Logie Baird pioneered television.