Engineering the Next Generation

By Commenter Indy Sidhu on at

January came and went this year in a jiffy. It was also this same month which saw hundreds of thousands of ambitious young people plough their way through the circuitous online methods in order to apply for admission to UK universities.

Most of the eager applicants got their submissions in before the Christmas period, while the other more lethargic bunch have only just sent their forms in, in addition to semi-perusing their ex's photos on their brand new iPhone 5s and Samsung S3s.

That wonderfully transparent university application admission service UCAS claimed that 2012 saw 4,231 students accepted into places offering civil engineering courses, with the previous year exactly 4,854, and the year before that, 2010, a total of 5,000. We can easily put this down to austerity; recent rises in tuition fees, and a lack of general effort on the part of students wanting to go to university and study; instead thinking they're talented enough to go on The X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent.

My dig is not aimed at the government and its cuts (yes, that last word omitted the 'n'); the tough austerity stick of which is still being pushed into our cushy backsides. My concern stems from the fact that the industry has a deficit of adaptable skills if more young engineers are so reluctantly hired. Anyone applying for an engineering-related job will be fully aware of the hours spent writing one online application form which scrupulously asks for every morsel of your educational history before allowing you to press SEND. You wait weeks for a response, before finally getting a two-line email that renders the whole task pointless.

However, my main concern is what can be done in the engineering and construction industry to appeal to those pert young people who can truly change our world. It's a recurrent issue that has had more glaring screen time since the drop in university applications. The two main themes from this pool of solutions were a.) encouraging people to "leave their mark on history and build the future," and b.) to inspire them to "solve the engineering challenges of today."

There is of course an interesting current trend; the Royal Academy of Engineering proclaimed that the number of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths) grads needed to sustain our status against other leading engineering-graduate countries is 100,000 a year. Yes, you heard me right. 100,000 ambitious and well-rounded teenagers ready to become engineers. Sound like an unobtainable figure? It's only 10,000 more then the actual figure. The best part -- about 25 per cent of engineering grads go into non-engineering jobs. The industry desperately needs some fresh fledglings to replace the well-experienced/well-aged engineers common in the country.

The "build the future" vs. the "solve the challenges" argument raised an interesting issue. It was then proposed that the "solvers" and "builders" are not synonymous and that the industry requires both kinds of people in order to propel.

I would consider myself part of both categories as I always wanted to solve the problem through a mathematical outlet and still be the same Lego-obsessed, pillow-fort building child I was (and still am to this day). My hope is that today's generation -- which still shows untapped skills -- would be inspired to become the engineers of the future, amply designing structures to highs and lows, and testing the boundaries of material tolerances.

Sustainability is becoming more and more apparent in design solutions, for nearly every engineering issue. The current economical climate mirrors that need to tighten wallets; conserve materials, and reduce construction times. It could perhaps be more pertinent then ever if you look at the amount of engineering works in London reaching cessation. Buildings left un-built, like those you see and hear about in Asia.

There is, as always, a pitfall -- the builders are thought of as 'overlooking' the solving-mentality of the issue, and build without fully understanding the problem. If the industry does indeed require different ways of thinking, perhaps it should try and attract young people with different passions and talents than the ability to do basic physics and maths -- yet that is the most rudimentary criterion for an engineering future. Sociology and even geology have shown tremendous merits to assisting in the engineering field.

Leaving a mark on history does appeal to some, even me, but the other additional is also a strong argument. Parents try everything to engage their children in a broad range of subjects and interests. Even today's younger engineers like to boast of their skilled accomplishments. Being able to point at a structure and proudly say, "I did that." I've done it on occasion; there is a warm sense of pride and satisfaction. It also boosts moral and confidence and a passion to do better than before.

Despite the 'solve' vs 'build' debate, solving the issue seems to be the most agreed-upon way forward in this industry. However, how hard is it to resist making something out of Lego when it's sitting in front of you and arresting your gaze? It seems to me that the desire to build actually projects itself more, even with no apparent problem to solve.

Indy Sidhu is a civil/structural engineer working at a London-based temporary works design practice, supporting demolition and construction businesses. Check out his artwork here.

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