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FEATURE: IMechE CEO Stephen Tetlow on challenges ahead after Uff Review

Katia Moskvitch

Stephen Tetlow in the IMechE reception (Credit: IMechE)
Stephen Tetlow in the IMechE reception (Credit: IMechE)

The Uff Review of the profession called for better cooperation between institutions to improve the way they advise government and promote engineering in schools. IMechE CEO Stephen Tetlow tells PE editor Katia Moskvitch about the challenges ahead.

Last year, the IMechE, ICE and IET – together making up 70% of the UK engineering community – commissioned John Uff QC to lead a review of the profession. The review recommends actions that institutions need to take to stop being fragmented and make it easier for young people to join an engineering organisation – and succeed in their careers. For the IMechE CEO Stephen Tetlow, the appeal of a radical shake-up of the institutions to create a modern, amalgamated profession is about much more than just getting 3 million ‘missing members’ on board – those who could join the IMechE but haven’t. It’s about looking into the future, cutting costs and adapting the best way possible to the new, global digital world. 

What was the main motivation behind commissioning the Uff Review?

We hear a lot from our members, employers and academia – and everybody is asking why are we not working more closely together, why are there 35 different engineering institutions with the same sort of technologies and constructs that there were in the 1950s? And technology has moved on. 

So the three big institutions felt that, despite all the work and collaboration that goes on behind the scenes, within the regions and internationally between institutions, that the strategy going forward has to be something really radical. We felt that we needed someone outside of the profession to look at us and do a proper review. 

I think it was more due to frustration and the lack of change.

What were the review’s main recommendations?

The first recommendation has to do with a duplication of effort between institutions that is creating a fragmented and unfocused community. That segmentation perpetuates divisions between branches of engineering, which is losing a lot of relevance to the profession itself. 

The next one is that professional registration is irrelevant to about 3 million people. There are about 300,000 registrants in the UK Engineering Council and there are about 3 million people with qualifications and experience that could be registered. So the current construct of what we are doing is not relevant to those 3 million. We need to change what we are providing to them to make ourselves more relevant. 

The other recommendation is that Engineering UK and the profession more widely is not effective in attracting young people into taking up the foundation study in schools to become engineers. We are not attracting young people into apprenticeships. 

Have there been any specific actions since the publication of the report?

The three main institutions that commissioned the review have started taking action. We are working with the Royal Academy of Engineering to coordinate better advice to the government, and we are working together to reform how the professional engineering institutions and Engineering UK promote engineering in schools. 

We are examining how best we can share our knowledge and open all our resources to the engineering membership. We are reviewing courses and training at universities and colleges. And we are working to develop a programme to engage the missing 3 million. We are doing a major piece of market analysis together to see how we can address that.

Why do you think it would be better to have one mega-institution?

I don’t think we’ll ever merge into just one mega-institution. There will still be institutions wanting to go their own way, and that’s fine. If you have one big monolith, I don’t think it serves the purpose either. People need identities, there are specialisms within engineering. But we can create what you might call ‘An institution of engineering’ that really makes value for money, we reduce all the overheads, and provide much better services for our members and future members. 

If that means reducing the number of CEOs and the number of HR departments, the massive number of libraries and different platforms that we all run – not only will we achieve better value for money but we’ll achieve a better product as well. It doesn’t mean there will be fewer opportunities for engineers – it will mean a lot more. 

I think there is a really strong and fundamental case to bring more of the institutions together and that would bring a lot of benefits. First thing is, when a young person enters engineering, this array of 35 different institutions is totally confusing. 

We did a ‘mystery shopper’ exercise and got a young female graduate with a general engineering degree to ring up seven different institutions. She had to ask, how do I join you, which one would you advise me to join, and so on. She got seven different answers, seven different quite complicated structures of membership, and she felt none of those really fitted the job she was going into. And incidentally she got quite a lot of wrong information. 

That to me is indicative of how difficult it is for young people to really understand what professional engineering is about. If we provided an entry into professional engineering where you could join an organisation which would register you on the path of a professional engineer and then you could adjust what you wanted to do as your career develops, you engage with different technologies that suit you and suit your employer – that seems to me a much better route. 

We keep the same standards but it makes it much easier for you and it means what the institution is doing is much more aligned with what the employer wants and what you need in your career. 

And if you look at how we are all divided up in different sectors, different segments, and different technologies, many of them overlap. The choices are very difficult for young people, and they don’t need to make these choices so early in their career, anyway.

The traditional model of our institutions is to provide meeting places for people face to face, and we do that on quite strict technological and sector-based grounds between institutions. But the world is already changing, it’s a digital world out there, global world – so the level of investment needed by each of our institutions to create an open platform, the knowledge base, the analytics, all the benefits of the Internet of Things, is a level of investment that each of the individual institutions – none of them do on their own. 

All of this information needs to be joined together so that you can access it across a wide variety of different technologies. And the technologies themselves are changing and don’t reflect the construct of what we’re in. We are not only organised in the wrong way in terms of technologies, we are not organised to deliver them, and we are not organised to the level of investment required to deliver them. And that’s really fundamental.

There have been several attempts to merge institutions and they failed. So what needs to be done to succeed?

That’s a good question. There are many reasons why there were failures to merge in the past. Our attachment to traditions and history tended to get in the way. I think the way forward is to have a properly declared vision of what we are trying to achieve and I don’t think it was done well in the past. 

I’m very pleased to say that a number of CEOs have now come together and we have agreed between us a vision of what needs to happen. We are now taking this to our trustees and our members, saying this is what we think as CEOs, this is where you should be going, we need you to agree with this vision to take your institutions forward. 

I think having this common vision is really fundamental. Once we have that vision, we need to have a proper dialogue, a set timeframe between these institutions to achieve a level of change that’s required, real commitment right from the start. 

And, finally, we have to communicate all these issues and really listen to members and make sure our trustees listen properly to the voices of their members. Sometimes we find that the boards can get a bit out of kilter with what their members are saying. 

We need to make sure that these changes are properly communicated, we listen to our members and we deliver the change that members and their employers require. If we are all committed to these three things, then I am really optimistic. We’ve got to deliver. 

The fundamental thing that we do is to look out for public safety but it doesn’t mean that we have to stay doing the same thing we’ve been doing for the past 50 or 60 years. We’ve been given a really big wake-up call now. 

If we fail to grasp that and take it forward, then all of engineering is going to lose, not only our future members. 


Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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