Why engineering know-how is vital for our future leaders

By Nigel Fine, Chief Executive of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET)

Nigel Fine explains why business graduates need a better understanding of the value of engineering and technology – and why engineering graduates have skills that make them strong future business leaders.

Everyone and everything we use as part of our daily lives have been touched by engineering and technology. In fact, it is the backbone of many of the things we take for granted in the world. From our smart phones and tablet devices to energy, homes and food they have all come about and been improved thanks to engineers. 

Engineering makes up 27% of the UK’s total GDP and supports 14.5 million jobs. It has also been responsible for some of our biggest innovations, from solar panels to MRI scanners, satellite navigation to 3D-printing, mobile phones to carbon fibre, cameras to air conditioning, and internet to space transportation.

The fact that we need more engineers is well documented. There are simply not enough young people taking up the important gateway subjects such as maths, physics and design & technology – and then taking their studies further whether through an apprenticeship, or higher education. This is in spite of the efforts by many to highlight engineering as an exciting, creative and vibrant industry. 

But this is not the only issue we face. There are also a growing number of business students going into general management roles without understanding the value of engineering and technology.

While business courses follow different syllabuses to engineering courses within the university curriculum, in the real world the two disciplines are much more closely linked. Innovation depends on business to bring it to market, and equally business looks to innovation to provide competitive advantage which is where engineering and technology come in. 

While business courses follow different syllabuses to engineering courses within the university curriculum, in the real world the two disciplines are much more closely linked

It follows that there needs to be much greater awareness, understanding and appreciation of the importance of engineering and technology among business students than there is today.  

In our recent ‘Ones to Watch’ report, for example, we identified six fast-growing industries that will drive the future employment of engineers and technicians in the UK. These are space, new power networks, cyber security, 3D-printing, food security and robotics. What all of these industries have in common is an urgent need for faster adoption of new technology. This requires a business mindset, and an appreciation of the contribution of engineering. 

In all these growth sectors the application of engineering skills is at the very heart of our ability to develop and deploy the exciting technology that will solve the defining issues of our generation.

A business graduate starting their first job who is well informed about the value and contribution of engineering innovation is likely be better placed to exploit commercial opportunities than one who is not, which will make them a stronger contributor to their organisation.

The other side of the coin is that engineering students often gain skills that stand them in good stead to become business leaders, such as problem solving, numeracy, project and team management, and creativity.

So what does all of this mean? Essentially it points to the fact that the differences between engineering and business disciplines are far less than many people may think – and that we need to do more to blend together the very best of both disciplines.

We need business to get behind engineering– and this includes business leaders and future business leaders looking to engineering as the source of innovation and business creation and to recognise the skills that engineers gain in higher education are very important foundations for developing a business career. 

As the UK looks to create economic advantage, we are already opening up conversations with universities to explore ways to raise awareness of engineering amongst business students.

Our natural starting point is an exploration about how engineering and technology can feed into and complement a typical business education curriculum – and our end goal is to achieve a much closer working relationship between engineering and technology and the business world which delivers benefits for everybody.

Equally we need to build recognition among engineering students that an engineering degree offers them enormous career potential which opens the opportunity of moving through the general management streams as well as through “expert” engineer career paths.

By working more closely together within the university, business and engineering students could do a lot to increase their mutual appreciation and understanding which would serve them well when they enter the workplace.

Only by doing this will we create business leaders who understand and can exploit the full economic potential that engineering and technology has to offer. 

W: www.theiet.org

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