07 June 2010

Allan Cook CBE, chairman of engineering design group, Atkins

Semta is at the forefront of addressing the skills crisis and now there is a new man at the forefront of Semta. Paul Fanning reports.

"My father had his own business as an electrical contractor and I worked with him nights and weekends – whenever he'd let me, really. So as far back as I can remember – from when I was eight or nine years old – I've been taking things apart and putting them back together again. It seemed to me that it was logical that I go into engineering. What else was I going to do? It's been a fantastic career for me."

The path Allan Cook CBE, the chairman of engineering design group Atkins, followed to become an engineer will sound familiar to many. However, it is one he fears may not be followed by others with similar inclinations without consistent support and investment in the manufacturing and engineering sectors. And it is with addressing this issue in mind that Cook has taken over from Sir Alan Jones of Toyota as chairman of employer-led Sector Skills Council Semta.

The message of how rewarding and fulfilling a career engineering can be is one that Cook is keen to get across and is something of which his career provides ample evidence. With more than 30 years' global experience in the automotive, aerospace and defence industries, he was chief executive of Cobham PLC before joining Atkins and previously held senior positions with GEC-Marconi, BAE Systems and Hughes Electronics. He was awarded a CBE in 2008.

For all that, Cook is aware that the public image of manufacturing still leaves a great deal to be desired. He says: "There is undoubtedly a perception among parents, teachers and even the further education universities that a career in engineering is less satisfying than one in other sectors such as financial services. We've got to change that perception and the only way we can do that is to see continual and prolonged investment."

Without this investment, Cook believes, manufacturing cannot convey the image to attract the right type and number of skilled people. "Youngsters coming into industry are looking for a career path that's going to be rewarding from a monetary perspective and from the perspective of job satisfaction," he says. "They want to be working in a good environment with modern tools and they want to be working on interesting projects. And, of course, you can't do that if there's no investment going in. It's a stagnation effect."

Of course, where this investment will come from in an economy where public spending is going to be severely restricted is another matter, but Cook feels that there is a growing recognition of the value of the manufacturing sector and anticipates support from the new Government. "Amongst politicians, trade associations and in government circles, they all recognise that manufacturing is a positive contributor GDP and we're not either generating or training enough of our skilled people into the engineering, manufacturing, science and technology sectors… The previous government acknowledged this and was investing in it and I'm absolutely certain that the new government will have the same approach in terms of developing that because it's an integral part of what they need to do to get this economy working again," he says.

This recognition has not always been there, however. Something Cook acknowledges when he says: "There has been a period of time – and not in immediate history – when manufacturing and engineering were not perceived as being as critical to our gross domestic product. I don't want to be specific, but a lot of people believed that anything that was going on outside the M25 was not as important as what was going on inside the Square Mile."

That manufacturing is a good investment is another point that Cook is keen to emphasise, saying: "It's a net-net contributor, so what we're talking about is something that is going to give the country a significant return on its investment. For every pound that is invested in the manufacturing sector, it's estimated that we make £20."

Recognising this and actually doing something about it, however, are two different things. Says Cook: "Historically, I think there has been a recognition that investment in skills will give a good return on that investment. Part of the problem is that, from a business point of view, you always want to have tangible proof of return on investment and in many, many ways, it can be quite difficult to see because this sort of investment is quite long-term. The real issue is that if we don't make this level of investment, the repercussions are potentially horrific."

This is not solely a problem for Government, however. Cook believes that industry, teachers, careers advisers and many others have a role to play. "I think it's about educating the people who make the decisions throughout all walks of life that this is a really, really important part of the curriculum and isabsolutely critical to the future development of the UK," he says. "We do a lot of really, really neat things in this country, but perhaps we have had a history of hiding our light under a bushel… Far too often we see youngsters who say 'No-one told me you did this. No-one told me this was a potential career path'."

Paul Fanning

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