The quality of entries and the rigorous judging process ensures the finalists in the British Engineering Excellence Awards (BEEAs) are exemplary and the winners are genuinely excellent. For Navtech Radar to win two awards in 2015 – Design Engineer of the Year and Design Team of the Year – was a considerable achievement.

“It’s a great feeling to be recognised,” said Richard Poulton, Navtech’s hardware team leader and Design Engineer of the Year. “For the business, the team award is a great achievement. The personal award is – and I mean this genuinely – effectively a second team award; I couldn’t have done the development on my own. The team has enabled that, so it’s a validation for us as a team and as a business.”

Attracting new talent is something that isn’t easy for Navtech, in common with much of the engineering sector.

“We have struggled,” said Poulton. “Especially when trying to recruit junior engineers. We are lucky that we have a close relationship with Bath University, so have a good insight into potential candidates on the degree courses. We also work on a Knowledge Transfer Programme (KTP) with Bath; that gives businesses like ours access to university research and knowledge that we can exploit.

“Finding people with the right attitude, the right personality and the right skills for what we’re trying to do is difficult. It’s a diverse job and we can’t compartmentalise as such. We have to take on all aspects; electronics engineers need to have a good appreciation of mechanical design and good commercial awareness – basically, the decisions we make every day on which parts to use, what we can afford, what we can’t and where we need to compromise on the performance versus cost. It’s difficult.”

In common with other engineering companies, it’s not just finding the right engineers, it’s finding any engineers. Poulton believes a concerted promotional campaign would help. “More promotion in the media, more promotion by schools and universities. I think there are some good projects; take Formula One, for instance. Most Formula One teams are based in the UK and attracts some of the finest engineers. Bloodhound is coming; that’s a good engineering project which has prestige attached to it and it doing its bit to promote that within schools and the country.

“The media needs to play its part in promoting those as good, interesting, attractive roles for people to take. We tend to hear in the news about the things that go wrong, rather than the successes of engineering products and projects. More of that should be exploited.

One thing we’ve noticed – and I think is fairly key – is that talented people go from an engineering background into the financial sector. Their good analytical skills and good processing skills are the sorts of things they want. As a country, we are putting all our eggs in that one basket, whereas putting together manufacturing and engineering – that is the fundamental key for the UK going forward.”

Once students have been attracted to study engineering, Poulton says the teaching needs to be more useful and interesting. “There needs to be more emphasis on the practical side,” he said. “Sandwich courses with a year in industry should be mandatory. It’s very easy to come out of university with some engineering skills, but the practical side of things is more difficult.

“Maybe it’s less critical if you move straight into a big company that can embed young engineers gradually. But companies like Navtech need people to use their skills quickly and there’s a lot that you don’t get exposed to in university, like design compromises and the commercial aspects.”

While a sandwich year might provide a broader and more practical education, paying a salary to the student can be a considerable cost for small host firms. “I think there’s an area there for exploring,” said Poulton. “Possibly subsidies for companies participating in sandwich courses or maybe subsidies for key degree courses themselves. But trying to get people on the courses in the first place, and engaging with industry to make sure they’ve got partners to enable those courses, is all important.”

Beyond what the engineering profession could do to engage children, Poulton thinks there should be more emphasis on what it should do. “Quite what that obligation leads you to is open,” he said. “Navtech takes on as many as it realistically can for work experience, and does presentations and articles for schools. There is an obligation and it’s not just limited to engineering. I think it’s important that other professions encourage and provide the means, where possible, to get people interested.”

Poulton identified the status of the engineer as one issue that could be resolved. “There’s a certain prestige with qualifying as a doctor or as a solicitor. An engineer isn’t a protected title within the UK and one thing we can do is to push towards giving that prestige back.”

Recently, the case has been put forward by some for more state support in such areas as shipbuilding and, most recently, steel. Poulton agrees: “I think there needs to be more protection for those types of industries. Take the steel industry; I think that wouldn’t be allowed to happen in other countries: they protect industries and skilled workers.

“And we need to keep those skilled workers in the country. One of the jobs we advertised had very few UK based applicants. We had a high level of overseas applicants, which is fine, but we need to make sure those skills aren’t then lost if individuals move to other countries. We need to make sure they’re protected within the UK.”

Richard Poulton

Having graduated with an electronics engineering degree from Sheffield Hallam University in 2000, Richard Poulton joined Blue Wave Systems, developing DSP imaging products for medical and VoIP applications.

In 2006, Poulton joined Fujitsu, moving to Navtech Radar as employee 14. Although employed as an electronics designer, he now heads the eight strong hardware design team.