Article - Issue 6, November 2000

Students need exciting role models to persuade them to choose engineering careers

Trevor Kletz OBE FREng

Download the article (363 KB)

In the August 2000 issue of Ingenia Lord Oxburgh described and deplored the decreasing numbers and ability of students taking courses in science and engineering at university and suggested some remedies. I believe that one of the reasons for the decline is that schoolchildren and those who advise them have little idea what a life in science or technology is like, especially if there are few scientists or engineers amongst their family’s friends and relatives. Few teachers of chemistry, for example, have actually worked in industry.

Though some scientists have written autobiographies, there are very few by industrial chemists or engineers. The only recent books that I know of are Well Oiled by Alfie Wilson who describes his career in Shell in the period 1931–1962 and High Speed Gas by Sir Kenneth Hutchison, a former deputy chairman of the Gas Council whose experience came somewhat later. Norman Swindin’s Engineering Without Wheels is outstanding, but it covers a period now long past – he was born in 1880 – and he was an outstanding man, whom few can hope to emulate.

Potential students should know that life in industry is useful, satisfying and enjoyable. It is useful because it contributes to the wealth of the nation and the world. I found it satisfying because it is concerned with the solving of stimulating problems in an environment where the necessary resources are usually available – making the best of those that are available is sometimes part of the challenge. I found it enjoyable because I worked in co-operation with colleagues who were usually helpful and pleasant to work with. Not all companies are the same but in ICI (where I spent 38 years) there were very few people who were prepared to trample on others in order to get on.

Many of the brightest people of my generation were attracted to industry but since then its reputation has fallen, for various reasons. Many young people are attracted to jobs through which they feel they can help their fellow men and women. In a broadcast some years ago, John Garnett, a former ICI personnel manager and a writer and consultant on industrial relations, described a conversation with some students who had hitch-hiked a lift with him. When they graduated, they said, they wanted a socially useful job, such as allocating council houses. He asked them if they had considered a career in which they created more wealth instead of allocating more fairly the wealth that was already available. The question surprised them; they admitted they had not looked at things in this way before.

In recent years many young people have been attracted to financial services where earnings are higher than those of engineers and chemists. But the grass on the other side always looks greener. It is easy to find examples of people who earn more than engineers, but we should be wary of comparing the median pay of engineers with top salaries elsewhere. Also, some of the wealth of City people is paper money, such as options whose value can shrink or disappear overnight.

More important, perhaps, than these reasons is a fear that industry will be a dull and soulless grind. There are still many people who feel like Seneca (4 BC–65 AD):

But the inventing of such things (as glass) is drudgery for the lowest of slaves; philosophy lies deeper. It is not his office to teach men how to use their hands. The object of his lessons is to form the soul.

Alfie Wilson (p. 48) quotes an essay by a sixth-form student, who says much the same as Seneca:

To me industry appears deadening, an unending treadmill. The human being is converted into a cog in some massive industrial machine, and a very small cog at that ... The pursuit of what I shall call ‘spiritual awards’ is the new burning issue in choosing a career – hence the growth of the public sector ‘nonproducers’ such as teachers, social workers, even those much maligned public servants, the Civil Service ... I am looking for these very ‘spiritual awards’, something which industry, at the moment, cannot, or will not, supply.

In 1985 The Daily Telegraph reported the results of a survey of Britain’s school children. The brightest children, it reported, regarded working in industry as boring and routine and as making little contribution to the country’s wellbeing. It rarely provided worthwhile careers and was the last thing their fathers and mothers wanted them to work in. ‘There was no significant understanding among the schoolchildren of the importance of business as the basis of wealth creation.’ This is still true.

There is also a belief that industry is responsible for pollution of the environment. Many do not realise that industry provides the necessities for our modern way of life and only scientists and engineers have the skills to reduce pollution. In fact, service industries, including financial, medical and social services, are only made possible by the wealth-producing activities of industry, and the environment is far cleaner than it was in my youth.

During my 38 years with ICI I had a variety of jobs. I spent seven years in research, 16 in production management, including a short break in design, and 14 as one of the company’s first technical safety advisers. Some examples of the changes in which I played a part show the opportunities available in industry to people who are willing to develop or try out new ideas.

Most safety and environmental problems are the result of leaks of hazardous materials. The usual method of controlling them or minimising their effects was to add on lots of protective equipment. It is expensive and can fail. One day the penny dropped. It would be much better to use so little hazardous material that it did not matter if it all leaked out or to use a safer material instead. This sounds obvious but until then little thought had been given to ways of reducing the amount of hazardous material in a plant. We simply designed a plant and accepted whatever amount of flammable or toxic material was required by the design, confident of our ability to keep the material under control. A number of fires and toxic leaks decreased our own and the public’s confidence in our ability to do so. We started looking for ways of reducing the amount of hazardous material in our plants and found many ways of doing so. In such plants the safety is inherent and not dependent on added-on protection that might fail.

We cannot do everything at once. How do we decide which safety (or environmental) problems are tackled first, which tolerated, at least for the time being? We needed a better method than giving the most to those who shouted the loudest. For safety the answer we found was to look at the risk to life and deal with the biggest risks first. ICI was one of the first manufacturing companies in the world to develop and apply these methods, now recommended, and in some cases demanded, by the Health and Safety Executive.

These were technical problems but in the course of my career I also played a part in the development of better training methods, by discussion rather than lecturing, and better methods of estimating relative rates of pay.

The endless number of fascinating technical problems has kept me active long after I retired from industry. I have no hesitation in recommending science and engineering to anyone about to leave school. You will have a fascinating job and with it the knowledge that you are contributing to the wealth of the world.

By accident …a life preventing them in industry, with a Foreword by Sir John Harvey-Jones, is published by PVF Publications, price £14.95 (ISBN 09538440-0-5).

Trevor Kletz OBE FREng
Visiting Professor
Loughborough University

[Top of the page]