What is in store for British science, engineering, technology and manufacturing in this globlised world as the international economy regains its footing? Mark Ingham of serial innovators Sensor Technology Ltd says we need to learn lessons from other industries as well as other countries.
Will you watch the Commonwealth Games this summer? Did you see the Winter Olympics? How about the London Olympics before then? If so, what can they tell us about British sportspeople?
Perhaps the most obvious thing is that they are world class. They don’t all win every medal, but overall there are plenty of British contenders for the top slots. And in many of the disciplines where we fall short, there are now often some young hopefuls getting experience this time around and aiming for the podium in the foreseeable future.
But it was not always so. For most of my formative years, Britain was very much an also-ran in many sports. Team GB came home from the Atlanta Games in 1996 with just one gold medal; our athletes could not compete with the Americans; Australian swimmers left us in their wake; our gymnasts, martial artists and cyclists usually floundered mid-table.
By coincidence 1996 was also the year in which the National Lottery was started. This generated large sums of money which were to be ‘distributed to good causes’. I don’t know who, but some brilliant person went to work and secured large parts of the Lottery cashflow for sports development.
Young talent was spotted and nurtured. Importantly multifaceted support systems were put in place, including trainers, business managers and agents, mentors, fitness specialists, sports psychologists, nutritionalists and physiotherapists. The management of individual sports was changed so that longer term strategic vision could be developed. Facilities were rebuilt and invested in.
The British film industry has a similar recent history. In the 1970s, it was all but dead in the water with an output of comic soft porn such as Confessions of a Window Cleaner, and Carry on Camping and feature length spin offs of TV sitcoms like Bless this House, Please Sir and On the Buses.
But now it is very different, as a look at recent Oscars, Golden Globes etc shows. The Kings Speech won just about every possible accolade. Hollywood looked to Britain to create the special effects for Harry Potter, Indiana Jones and Gravity. Twelve Years a Slave, Sunshine on Leith and Philomena showcased British writing, acting, directing and cinematography. Skyfall, the latest 007 blockbuster, cost a fortune to make but was in profit almost immediately after launch.
There is an obvious parallel between the resurgence of the film and sports industries, in that both relied on nurturing young talent and building support structures.
But we should also consider their internationalisation. For films, talent searches, finance building, and shooting location are clearly sans frontières. And while sport is often pitched as country against country, look how many competitors, coaches and backroom staff are working far from their homeland.
So are there any lessons that science, technology and engineering can learn from sport and film?
In terms of nurturing talent, we have a well-established education system. It is notable that many students move to the UK to benefit from this, and presumably they could have chosen different countries to go to. I think we can say that this confirms that British technical education is at least ‘good’.
But how much support is there to get technical graduates and other young people into technical industries? It is notable that a significant proportion of technical graduates go into different industries and that many overseas students leave the UK soon after graduating. This would seem to imply that there is a lack of support at this vital career decision time.
Overseas students may have visa restrictions that prevent them from staying much longer in the UK. This would seem a bit short sighted; if they were to stay and work for UK companies, the UK would reap some return on the investment into their development.
If we look at the issue from the other end, we see that British engineering organisations employ a good many senior engineers from abroad. Perhaps the important word here is ‘senior’. Presumably, these senior engineers have opportunities to work in many parts of the world, but have chosen the UK (even if only temporarily).
So we see that the UK is attractive to students and senior professionals. The point of leakage seems to be the 22-30 age bracket, so are we competitive in our approach to this age/qualification group?
A glance at a couple of international recruitment websites suggests that UK salaries are significantly lower, as are benefits. It also seems that overseas employers may be more supportive of further education, such as part-time post graduate studies. In Germany, America, Japan, Australia and many other countries, a career in science, technology or engineering carries far more social esteem than it does in the UK, while prospects for career advancement seem better spelt out in many cases.
Some industries, such as banking and finance, the military and medicine seem to woo graduates far more than the UK technology sectors, promising long term careers, offering help with accommodation, overseas posting, mentoring etc.
The British economy is once again growing and the engineering and manufacturing sectors should do well over the next few years. So this is a chance to recruit the next generation of senior managers and international business managers. They may look like spotty youths who have cut their hair and donned suits for the first time in three years. But if they have got a good vocational degree and a bit of get up and go, they are probably worth investing in.