Dan Mutadich’s 15-year career has been a sterling one. The
British engineer has worked on products ranging from cellphones
to flat-screen TVs, and has been involved with such A-list companies
as Nokia and Phillips.
Nevertheless, Mutadich, 36, paints a bleak picture of an engineer’s lot in British industry, saying that engineers are too often considered “Mr. Fix-its,” relegated to career paths that rarely lead to upper management levels.
In the 18th century, Britain’s engineers stood at the forefront of the industrial revolution, leading the way with agricultural innovations and path-breaking inventions such as the steam engine and mechanized spinning wheel. Today, however, the role of British engineers has become more circumscribed, and the public perception of them has also suffered. Britain’s Engineering and Technology Board (ETB) recently noted that “the prevalent view of scientists and engineers by young children is bespectacled, mad-looking, white-coated males.”
As a result, Mutadich says, “young British engineers are frustrated, because they find it difficult to break into general management. And who loses? Both engineers and industry.” Too many big projects are led by teams that don’t understand the technologies involved, while engineers are sidelined. The result can be a big headache: Mutadich points to two major civil engineering projects—the high-speed, London-to-coast overland rail link for the Eurostar trains, and the construction of London’s new Wembley Stadium. Both were dogged by cost overruns and missed deadlines for this very reason.
One important solution may be to provide U.K. engineering students a deeper understanding of business. That’s the recommendation of the Sainsbury Management Fellows’ (SMF) Society, of which Mutadich is president. Comprising alumni of a fellowship program created 20 years ago to help British engineers acquire MBAs from top universities, the SMF is now urging U.K.’s engineering schools to incorporate more management and business courses in their curricula. Such a move would not only improve the career prospects of engineering grads, SMF argues. It would also help make the field more attractive in a country where the number of engineering graduates is failing to meet a growing demand.
Certainly something needs to be done. Says Jeff Kramer, dean of the engineering faculty at Britain’s top technical university, Imperial College: “The difficulty of attracting students into engineering is a universal problem but is especially acute in this country.” The percentage of total college graduates receiving degrees in engineering and science each year is now 12 percent–around 45,000 students—and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) warns that to fill the expected new tech jobs that number needs to more than double to 25 percent by 2014. But in the last decade, the number of engineering degrees awarded has grown by only 1 to 2 percent a year. By contrast, during the same time period, the percentage of British students receiving degrees doubled, from 20 to 40 percent. “We’re not getting our fair share,” says Julian Gardner, dean of engineering at the University of Warwick.
Another problem is that fewer than half of engineering graduates stick with the discipline after leaving school. Indeed, 28 percent head for prestigious, well-paying jobs in the City, London’s financial district. There, former engineers’ numerate and analytical skills are much in demand for creating math-based, complicated investment instruments; ironically, it seems to matter little how much basic business knowledge or managerial potential they have. At the University of Bristol, there are years when half the engineering graduates are City-bound. Only 24 percent opt for jobs in manufacturing.
Mutadich, who received his undergraduate and master’s degrees from Imperial—as well as a Sainsbury MBA at the French graduate business school, INSEAD—says his alma mater did a good job combining business and management courses with the science and math. Yet too many courses were “passive,” lecture-based series of case studies. Mutadich would like to see more hands-on courses, like one at the London School of Economics, where students actually have to try to sell a product from a stall at London’s outdoor Camden Market. He argues, as well, for more classes in business strategy, marketing and sales, courses that emphasize “soft skills.”
Although they must meet accreditation standards, U.K. engineering
schools have plenty of leeway in deciding how much and which business
courses to include in their programs. As part of the process of
screening and certifying applicants for the country’s professional
engineering designations (Chartered Engineers and Incorporated Engineers),
Britain’s Engineering Council ensures that they have degrees
from approved engineering programs. Like ABET in the U.S., the accreditation
process is outcomes-based. Graduates of the three-year B.Eng. degree
programs, equivalent to a U.S. bachelor’s, must show “knowledge
and understanding” of the commercial and economic results
of engineering processes. Graduates of the four-year M.Eng. degree
program, equivalent to a master’s, must show “extensive
knowledge and understanding of management and business practices.”
Yet how schools choose to reach those outcomes—and the number
and mix of business courses they require—is up to them. Council
spokesman Ed Hallett believes that the engineering schools are already
doing a satisfactory job of meeting
those criteria. Moreover, he’s not convinced that engineers
can’t reach top board-room positions, and notes that a recent
ETB report revealed that of the FTSE 100 companies—the most
capitalized blue-chip companies listed on the London Stock Exchange—17
were run by engineers.
Nevertheless, Warwick’s Gardner thinks that the SMF Society has a point in advocating curriculum change. “We remade our engineering curriculum a few years ago,” because of similar concerns, he says. In addition to business courses, Warwick—which has a reputation for innovation, as well as strong links to industry—added foreign-language classes and courses in ethics and philosophy, where students debate questions raised by such issues as sustainable development and nanotechnology. The changes worked. The engineering school is getting more applications and admissions. “It has also become more attractive to women, which is something we didn’t expect” but are very pleased about, Gardner adds.
He thinks that other U.K. universities will likely follow suit in liberalizing their programs, noting that the University of Cambridge is currently rethinking its engineering curricula. While younger professors are typically in favor of broadening the degree, he says, their older colleagues are more reluctant, tending to believe that teaching science and math is all that’s needed. “But we cannot get by just teaching calculus courses.”
Graham Davies, head of the School of Engineering at the University of Birmingham, does not dispute that engineering curricula need an overhaul. Yet he feels that more business courses are not the answer. Davies is part of a Royal Academy of Engineering and Henley Management College team that last year published findings that industry wants schools to teach more practical applications. They also want students to learn how to harness their creativity and how to work in teams. Learning business skills, Davies says, was low on industry’s wish list.
“Business skills they can teach, but not practical applications,” he says. Louise Morgan, an education policy adviser at the CBI, agrees: “All graduates, regardless of discipline, should graduate with key employability skills, including team-working, problem-solving and communications skills, which should be developed during their courses.”
In some respects, however, Davies and Mutadich may not be all that far apart, inasmuch as both argue the need for engineering students to leave college with a full arsenal of soft skills to complement their technical competence. It is a view that echoes that of a growing number of American engineering academics who are now pressing for more liberal arts classes. To foster teamwork, Birmingham students are taken on an Outward Bound-type adventure course, while M.Eng. students are put into teams to design and build a race car. To inject more practical know-how into its curricula, Birmingham also relies on projects assigned by actual companies, so that students work as consultants, helping to solve real problems. Davies admits business classes are important. “But the question is: how important?”
Of course, it takes money for any engineering school to revamp its curricula. And that’s an issue, too. Last year, the government increased the amount of funding on a per-student basis for some science and physics programs. But—aside from chemical engineering—the largesse didn’t extend to engineering, for which the government stipend per student has been decreasing for several years. “We are lobbying for engineering to get higher funding,” Warwick’s Gardner says. The government trumpets the need for a knowledge-based economy, which will require many engineers, Davies notes, “yet it is starving engineering schools of funds to fix and expand” their course offerings.
There’s also widespread recognition that engineering needs an image enhancement to attract more students. Imperial’s Kramer says the profession needs to be better at demonstrating to students “that engineering is an exciting and rewarding profession”—and that includes better remuneration for engineers, to help stem the flow of graduates to the City. As Mutadich points out, the $57,000 average starting salary engineers command doesn’t compare well with other professions.
A bigger worry for Mutadich is his belief that outdated notions also remain too entrenched within industry. “How can we expect to attract and retain the brightest engineers when we continue to battle an image of the test tube, the white coat and the hard hat?
Thomas K. Grose is a freelance journalist based in London.