No, not really Lord Browne, not really

\’Tis always the same, isn\’t it? To an engineer everything is engineering. To a politician all is politics, to a Marxist all is class.

Thus we find ourselves with Lord Browne telling us how the economy works:

The state of a nation is no more and no less than a function of what its people create. Creation begins in the laboratory, with research that unravels the processes which shape the world around us. It is then the job of engineers to turn scientific discovery into practical application, applying the fruits of the laboratory safely and productively to solve the problems of human existence.

The problem is that this is true of parts of the economy but not of all parts of it. That it is true of parts of it makes it important: that it is not true of all of it means that it is not a sole solution. For there are many more technologies (to use the word in its most expansive sense) that have absolutely nothing at all to do with engineering than there are that do.

Take, for example, the financial transactions tax. This is, as even the EU itself has reported, going to mean more expensive capital for companies. This will reduce the size of the total economy. No engineers were used or hurt in doing this: but the amount the people of the nation will create in the future is reduced by this method of taxation. This makes the FTT an undersirable technology, to be sure, but it\’s still a technology that affects production.

Or supply chain management, or just in time stocking of goods (both of which have had a large, much larger than generally acknowledged, impact on the larger economy). Or one I\’ve heard about, the stocking of fashion shops. There\’s a trade off between getting the stuff made in Spain or Portugal and doing it in China. China\’s cheaper, but with longer lead times. The correct blend of technologies seems to be to get the basic stock from China and then top up the best selling lines with goods from Spain and Portugal.

And yes, this is indeed a technology. Just as with David Friedman\’s point about turning wheat into cars. Some decades ago when he made the point the US did indeed use a factory in the Pacific to do this. The factory called Japan. So it is with the rag trade: Portugal and China are simply different technologies to make bikinis, each with their own costs and benefits.

So, no, I\’m afraid that not all will be cured simply if we have more engineering. Yes, creativity is indeed the root of all advance, but engineers aren\’t the only source of that.

Then there are two really bad errors……

The government\’s science budget, worth around five billion pounds a year, is recognition of the public good which results from these activities.

Puiblic goods eh? (Given that he is attempting to make an economic argument it must be public goods, not the public good.) You mean those non-rivalrous, non-excludable things like knowledge?

But we are in danger of being left behind. Science spending in China rose at a rate of 20 per cent per year in the first decade of this century, while Brazil tripled its research and development spending between 2000 and 2008. Scandinavian countries spend nearly four per cent of their GDP on research and development. In contrast, the UK devotes just 1.8 per cent of its GDP to R&D, and the science budget has been frozen since 2010.

Ah, excellent, those non-excludable and non-rivalrous things like knowledge that we can all benefit from wherever the original work might have been performed. You know, they spend more on science and thus there\’s more science for us all to enjoy?

And then this:

Second, we need to take meaningful steps to attract and retain the most talented individuals and teams, whether they are from the UK or abroad. We need 50 per cent more university graduates to go into STEM jobs every year if we are to fill the shortfall in scientists, engineers and technicians which the UK is likely to face by the end of the decade.

That\’s easy enough. We\’re in a market economy after all. You fuckers employing engineers have to pay them more. Problem solved.

20 thoughts on “No, not really Lord Browne, not really”

  1. Oh where to start with this? Big point first:

    “applying the fruits of the laboratory safely and productively to solve THE PROBLEMS OF HUMAN EXISTENCE” (my capitals) – Oh do grow up!

    Second, on the problem of the science graduate shortfall: agreed Tim; pure supply and demand here. Base your business here, pay the science graduates, set up scolarships to allow them to study in the UK; but only of course if it pays you to do so. I guess “the problem” is our kids will still be growing up thinking science and technology are sad and boring and the jobs will still go to some Indian kid with a better attitude, which actually is fine by me.

    Third: I once had the pleasure ( a real pleasure actually) of visiting a football shirt manufacturer. It had moved all of its bulk business to a factory run by a company in Egypt. The tight-deadline or comlex stuff was still done at the factory in the UK. About 20% of UK jobs were lost, which was better than 100%.

  2. Apparently Browne has spent the last 40 years determinedly not noticing that half the really good engineering graduates were going into the City. Plonker

  3. ‘You fuckers employing engineers have to pay them more.’
    Yup, it seems like engineering bosses have been calling for more engineers for decades, but oddly the wages never seem to reflect a scarcity. (Except for software engineers in the boom years.)

  4. 30 years ago I went to do engineering at Imperial. After a year out in industry I discovered that the pay was shit and the work was not all that interesting. Engineers had low status and low pay. We had no bargaining power as if we went on strike the whole production line could carry on for about a year before anyone cared. The only way to earn a decent wage was to aspire to management.

    I am not sure that anything has changed. Apart from a few centres of excellence (Formula 1, Ricardo and Rolls Royce engines) I get the sense that British manufacturing is largely building what has been designed elsewhere.

    Anyone who does engineering in the UK needs their head examined. In France or Germany it is prestigious and well paid.

    Anyway, in the end I quit engineering and I went into the city and did very well thank you.

  5. Browne’s degree is in physics, not engineering, and he spent his career as a general manager I believe rather than doing specific engineering.

    There’s a huge age problem in the industry at the moment due to a low intake of qualified engineers over the last 20/30 years – something like 70% of BP’s engineering staff is over 50 and when they retire the excrement will hit the air conditioning.

    Some companies are registering this and are really starting to ramp up their grad salaries to attract people – I heard a rumour that Shell is so desperate for drilling engineers that they’re being offered up to

  6. I think it is accepted that one area of endeavour that the UK was, and still is world class, at doing (despite its failures) is spying.

    We should expand and capitalise on that and do to the Chinese exactly what they have been doing to everyone else – industrial espionage, steal their intellectual property and free-ride on innovations paid for by them.

  7. I suspect Browne has spent a good part of his career outsourcing engineering skills in order to maximise returns. There’s nothing wrong with that … until something like the Deepwater Horizon comes along.

  8. There’s a huge age problem in the industry at the moment due to a low intake of qualified engineers over the last 20/30 years – something like 70% of BP’s engineering staff is over 50 and when they retire the excrement will hit the air conditioning.

    All the industry has woken up to this now, and have recruited accordingly. There is still a huge skills gap between those about to retire and those with less than 5-10 years experience, but the companies have at least brought in the youngsters.

    Also, I would listen to an ex-oil company executive’s opinions on how to run a country only if you have an interest in that country turning out like a south-American basket case: sacred cows, promotion of family members, protection of friends, indecision, abandonment of common sense, arse-licking of authority, dishonesty, insincerity, corruption, bureaucracy, petty feuds, endless arguments about nothing, backstabbing, greasy-pole climbing…it’s all there in spades in any major oil company.

  9. I heard a rumour that Shell is so desperate for drilling engineers…

    A cursory glance at how Shell recruits and the criteria they employ would tell you why. Shell survives by relying on contractors.

  10. I suspect Browne has spent a good part of his career outsourcing engineering skills in order to maximise returns. There’s nothing wrong with that … until something like the Deepwater Horizon comes along.

    The outsourcing isn’t so much the problem: it’s the development and nurturing of a culture whereby the Client, by virtue of his paying the bills, is *always* right and everyone else, by virtue of their not being the Client, is automatically wrong; and contractors continually being forced into cutting costs, which usually means cutting corners.

  11. In past few years there has been a slight push towards more science & engineering. One local school closed but opened up a year later as an engineering academy, there’s a science one not too far away too.
    Presumably with more emphasis on particular types of subjects so allowing more pupils/students to then go on for further engineering/science courses. Whether they want to, whether they choose to do a further course and carry on in the field is of course open to question.

  12. Like Frederick, I studied engineering at university, but eventually gave it up and made some money in the City. The fault, if you see it as a fault, may lie more with me than with employers of engineers.

  13. Engineer brother-in-law is in his early 60s and still working offshore. All his colleagues are of a similar age. He tells me there

  14. Engineer brother-in-law is in his early 60s and still working offshore. All his colleagues are of a similar age. He tells me there’s no one to replace them when they hang up their spurs. Nephews are mid-30s, graduate engineers, working offshore. But they have different skills.

  15. Engineer brother-in-law is in his early 60s and still working offshore. All his colleagues are of a similar age. He tells me there’s no one to replace them when they hang up their spurs.

    To be fair, every generation of blokes about to retire thinks nobody can replace them. He’s partly right, but partly wrong: they will replace him, with a bunch of Filipinos and Indians if necessary. They’ll not do half as good a job, but doing a good job in the oil business went out the window a long time back.

  16. I accept your premise, the Filipinos and Indians; the maritime industry is not immune. Having also spent in excess of 25 years as a subcontractor and consultant to our upstream friends I also sympathise with your more general argument.

  17. One thought: how much has disconnection of workplaces affected things?

    If you went back 20 years, most of the work in software was inside companies. You worked for a large organisation, in their IT department, you were sat in the department next to the call centre or the typing pool. You’d get to meet women.

    Now, IT functions are outsourced. In the past 5 years, I haven’t seen a single office romance, or even an office cop-off. If you’re a young guy, do you want that, or would you rather go into marketing?

  18. I’ve stuck with mining engineering all my life. Engineers in the Australian mining industry are well paid. I’ve got young engineers with about 3 years experience earning the equivalent of

  19. FFS

    120k quid.

    One of the things I’ve worked hardest on is succession planning. I don’t want to be working beyond 60 because there is nobody to replace me. Post 60 does not include going down a coal mine in my plans.

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