· Features

Business and schools must work together to train next generation of engineers

The lack of young people in engineering is disheartening. However, it’s not enough to feel disappointed – one has to ask why this is the case, otherwise you can implicitly become part of the problem, rather than the solution.

Our schools are filled with youngsters who routinely use complex and sophisticated technologies in their daily lives. So why is there such a disconnection between young people and engineering, the discipline that gave them these technologies? I believe the root cause is a fundamental misunderstanding in schools of what engineering really is. 

For instance, Harmonic Drive’s motion control products are used in the cameras of underwater vehicles, on bomb disposal robots and in fighter jets. Not to mention the presence we have in the broadcast sector: real engineering helped David Attenborough keep his cameras in the polar regions for long enough to film Frozen Planet, for instance. 

How do we demonstrate that engineering is a genuinely great career path? We’re working hard to spread a simple message to talented youngsters: engineers change the world. Far from being a dry topic, engineering couldn’t be a more vibrant, creative and colourful part of today’s business landscape. 

The great news is the UK has a rapid pace of technological innovation. The bad news is, because of this, students can leave university with an outdated understanding. But, where there is a will, there is a way, and at Harmonic Drive we have just initiated a programme to work with final-year and postgraduate students to provide up-to-date robotics and transmission knowledge. 

If the current generation of engineers grew up without the range of portable applied electronics technology that is available now, then I can’t help but wonder what can be achieved once the engineering skills gap has been closed. 

Apple’s Jonathan Ive, the man credited with the industrial design of the iPhone and iPod, is from Staffordshire, the home county of Harmonic Drive UK. He is the kind of engineer
we can point to as motivation for a new generation, for whom mobile technology is second nature. 
Drawing inspiration from the likes of Ive, and the kind of applications in which Harmonic Drive is active, helps the curriculum to communicate to students what engineering is really about. I would call on other SMEs to engage with their local communities to support this change. 

The UK has a heritage of innovation. However, our knowledge base has been eroded by the rapid growth of cheap labour markets and the natural loss of the older generation to retirement. The Government’s £49 million in funding to address the skills shortage is, therefore, welcome news. Also encouraging was a recent engineering week at Scarborough University where students interacted with demonstrations and talked to friendly faces in what is often perceived to be an intimidating industry.

Don't leace it all to big business and Government. Smaller firms can make steps to ensure a future stream of engineering talent is secured.

Graham Mackrell is managing director of Harmonic Drive UK.