Peter Hughes

16th March 2012 at 00:00
The chief executive of Scottish Engineering talks about his favourite subject's place in the curriculum, the impact of college reforms and why he finds it easy to motivate children. Interview by Elizabeth Buie Photography by Alistair Linford

You have successfully run your own business and presumably earned a lot of money. What's the attraction of flying the flag for the engineering industry?

I get to go and see so many exciting projects around the country; I get to go and see aero-engines being built at Rolls Royce, electronic components being done at National Semiconductor, taxis being built at Allied Vehicles, huge earth-moving trucks being made at Terex - I'm getting excited just talking about it. So when I go out to do motivational talks for kids, it's not difficult. The main reason I'm there is to motivate them to work hard at school in whatever career they choose.

How many schools have you visited?

Well in excess of 70,000 pupils since 1999. Schools? It's running into the hundreds now. The difficulty is that there are some schools I'm going back to now for the ninth year.

Is there a particular age group you prefer to target?

No, but there seems to be an age-group headteachers would like me to target - the S2 pupils, because they're at the curriculum choice stage. What I really like doing is school prize-givings where I get the entire school, because it's more important I get to the parents and the grandparents.

The first time, I had been invited to speak to 200 youngsters in Livingston. I have been in a folk band since I was 16 and play 21 musical instruments - can't read a note - and I decided to take my 12-string guitar and link that to engineering and the gears on a guitar. It went down a bomb, so I've added more instruments and I've added money as well - I give them fivers when they get questions right. And that was well received.

Is engineering given a big enough place in the curriculum?

No it's not - and the difficulty we've got is that a lot of heads and a lot of directors of education vote with their wallets. Engineering and technology is a relatively expensive subject to deliver, because the rate at which technology is advancing is quite frightening. That's why science and technology is important for the world, never mind the Scottish economy and Scottish jobs. Because of the cost, you get some heads saying you'll cover it in physics - no you won't, you won't even get close.

Are there any subjects we should be doing less of?

A lot of my friends teach languages and languages are important if you go abroad, but the importance of things like French and German and Spanish and Italian is probably less now than it was 10 or 15 years ago. But maybe they should learn Chinese - China is going to become the biggest English- speaking nation in the world before too long.

There are some airy-fairy subjects around - I was criticised by someone from Scottish Enterprise recently because I stood up at a conference and said we must stop denigrating kids who don't go to university and, second, if you've got kids who study Mickey Mouse subjects at Mickey Mouse institutions, they'll get Mickey Mouse jobs - and they'll get a Mickey Mouse pay.

Will the current college reforms benefit the engineering industry?

Something had to be done about colleges - there were far too many colleges claiming to be all things to all men and women, and to a lesser extent, the same could be said of universities. I've seen some colleges where the output is quite frankly nothing short of appalling. Their completion rates are tragic and they have been able to take the king's shilling for long enough and get away with it.

There are some wonderful colleges around - the Adam Smith College in Fife, for instance, has a thriving, driving, charismatic leader in Dr Craig Thomson and they've brought a number of Fife colleges together and built a brand new facility.

How did you become an engineer?

The only thing I did in my final year in school was an O-level French. I got some Highers in fifth year and my entire sixth year was spent playing football - I was a schoolboy youth international footballer and the rector sent for me in my final couple of months and said: "I've been speaking to the head of Jordanhill and you'll be studying PE there next year". I said: "I'm sorry but I'm not - I'm going to be an engineer."

In the meantime, an advert appeared in the local press for metallurgists. I thought, "I like the sound of that". I thought the word "metallurgist" would be a bird-puller - it wasn't. I applied for this job and this guy said: "I'm afraid we've got all out metallurgical input for this year, but we could offer you a job as an industrial chemist." I said: "Thank you, but I don't want to be an industrial chemist - I want to be a metallurgist." I was so insistent that eventually he said: "Well, we'll take on one more metallurgist."

Do you welcome the new technical and professional apprenticeships, designed to be at university-degree level?

There's a bit of a problem with that - there's a stigma associated with the word apprentice. I think we should be cleverer with regards to how we badge things.

Who's your engineering hero?

Thomas Telford - the guy who built all the bridges and all the roads.


Born: Bellshill, Lanarkshire, 1946

Education: Wishaw High; metallurgy, Coatbridge Technical College; management studies, University of Strathclyde; MBA, University of Dundee; honorary doctorates, UWS, Strathclyde and Napier

Career: Trainee metallurgist, Clyde Alloy; foundry manager, North British Steel Group; MD, Lake and Elliot; MD, National Steel Foundry 1914 Ltd; led management buy-out, later sold to US company; chief executive, Scottish Engineering 1998-present.

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