Planning for the future: Interview with Dr Mike Short, president, IET

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The IET's president tells Graham Pitcher the institution remains as relevant as ever

It's been 140 years since the establishment of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. Updating itself a few years ago, the body changed its name to the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET). But, according to the IET's current president Dr Mike Short, it is more relevant today than it has ever been. "The need for engineers is growing, but now engineers need to be multidisciplinary. The days of focusing only on one discipline have gone," he claimed. "The benefit of the IET is that it brings cross disciplinary activity." Short, who performs the role of IET president alongside his 'day job' as vp of public affairs for Telefonica, says the IET brings people together so they can learn from each other. "For instance," he continued, "I've recently chaired lectures on smart metering and the connected car. They are just two of more than 2000 events the IET will run in a year, allowing attendees to upgrade their knowledge." The IET also benefits engineers in its international approach. "This is just as relevant," Short claimed. "If companies have members working overseas, they will often want to make sure their staff have support. An employee may have, for example, worked in India and China. The IET helps to support them in the area." Despite the fact the institution is 140 years old, it is committed to continual change. "We're beginning to plan for our 150th anniversary," Short pointed out, "and we want to make sure that we are even more relevant in 10 years time." Alongside its educational and support interests, the IET is also interested in preserving and improving the status of engineers: a topic which has been in the headlines over the last couple of decades. Short expressed his concern. "In some areas, the reputation of engineers is not strong enough." One way of countering this problem is to convince future engineers of their important role. "The IET has the biggest educational programme aimed at inspiring tomorrow's engineers and to maintain and enhance the reputation of today's engineers," he said. "The status of engineers is important because people worry there won't be anyone to fix things, but engineers aren't plumbers." It is here where the IET works closely with the Engineering Council in the UK and with similar European bodies. "Recognising qualifications in other countries means thinking about portability. For example, Chartered Engineer status is now recognised as a professional qualification in Europe. And we still work with the Engineering Council to look at areas of recognition in the UK." He sees the need for a consistent approach across other UK institutions and for more work to be done at the technician level. "Our work on apprenticeships fits clearly into the technician level," he added. Short believes professional institutions still have an important role to play and points to the IET's growing membership as proof. "We have around 150,000 members globally, with growth in all areas. There's great interest in China and India, for example, where engineers want better recognition of their status. And in the UK, we have no difficulty in recruiting at the university level." While IET doesn't have the overt focus on continuing professional development that it used to, it still works to encourage its members to boost their knowledge and to record their progress. "We have a career manager, which allows members to use web based tools to say 'this is who I am and this is what I have done'. We're looking to be their professional home for life and maintaining a professional record is just as important today." This is supported by what Short says is the biggest video library of its type and by developing e-books. In terms of the electronics industry, Short recognises the UK's value on the global stage. "While the move has begun to push assembly offshore," he noted, "we have a very strong design community in the UK. The IET is committed to supporting electronic design in the UK and promoting its importance through its policy initiatives." Having said that, he admitted that the IET cannot do it alone. "We need to work more closely with bodies such as the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and the Knowledge Transfer Networks." The IET is already working with TSB on the creation of Technology Innovation Centres (TIC) and Short believes TSB is doing a good job. "While it's still early days, the TSB is focusing on the right things." He also realises that TSB, in its quasi governmental role, needs to be support focused. "Governments can't choose technologies," Short believes, "but financial support can go a long way." He cited the recently launched Space Applications Catapult Centre. "The UK is strong in technology, but this hasn't always been linked very well to applications. The Space Catapult plays well to the UK's strengths." Where he also sees good work being done by TSB is in the creation of themes. "Assisted living is a good example of something that wasn't happening before," he said. "ICT and health were two different sectors but together they have huge scope for growth. "The aging population means the NHS can't do it all, so what help will people need? We could, for example, put temperature sensors in homes and include that in a remote telecare application. "Already, the UK is spending 10% of GDP on healthcare – in the US, it's 16% – so we have to think about ways of doing it differently and engineers will be the people who make the difference," he concluded. Mike Short Mike Short has spent more than 30 years in electronics and telecommunications, with more than 20 years in mobile communications. He was elected chairman of the global GSM Association for 1995/96 and served on its executive board for five years. He has been a board member of the WAP Forum and a founder nember of the Open Mobile Alliance. Mike has chaired the Mobile Data Association since 1998 and has recently taken on the role of honorary president. Appointed vp technology of the O2 Group in 2000, he is a visiting professor at the universities of Surrey, Lancaster and De Montfort and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Staffordshire.