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All passed for press

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Last Saturday morning, on the kitchen table round at my house, my mate Andy and I signed off the 13 front news-style pages of the October issue of Environmental Engineering magazine. I’d produced the copy for those pages; he’d done the layouts and some judicious cutting and shaping; together we then made the pages fit, scrawled some headlines into the spaces allotted to them, wrote picture captions, nodded a few times, grumbled a bit and laughed a lot. And then Andy put the pages into the format from which a printer 200 miles west will be able to produce the printed magazine.

And that was that. My last press day. Probably. Someone else – a different old friend – is taking on responsibility for the back half of the October issue and will take on Environmental Engineering in its entirety from the next issue with Andy. Including the press days.

I’ve had the title “editor” on various magazines for just short of 30 years: about a dozen of those years on weeklies, a dozen or so on fortnightlies and the rest on something more infrequent. I reckon as an editor I’ve done around 900 press days – the days when you and your journalists have to stop faffing around and finally sit down to produce a magazine and sign it off. If you add in a dozen years before that, all of them spent on weeklies in varying positions of responsibility (or irresponsibility), I’ve done somewhere towards 1,500 press days. Signing off maybe the equivalent of 60,000 A4 pages or 36 million words.

I may do odd jobs as an editor over the next 40-odd years, but I’m now, finally, more of a jobbing freelance writer than an editor, happy to contribute wherever and whenever. And I’m not now, after last Saturday, in charge of getting the thing out of the door and, via the printer, on to the doormat of the reader. No more press days.

I’ll miss press day for the adrenaline rush that it still produces, the thought that your eyes are the last to see things and to be able to change things before they are committed to type and unalterable. My editing has spanned the technology changes from hot metal, galley proofs and the “magic” (which I never understood) of “subbing on the stone” with a compositor at your elbow – right through to today’s kitchen table publishing and web-ready copy. I’ll miss the constant technical challenge.

And I’ll miss the challenge of trying to make it as good and as right as you can inside the time constraints and, of course, the cost constraints. Journalism would be an easy job if you had no press deadlines and no budgetary restrictions: easy but shallow, and a big part of the press day smoke and mirrors is to make the published magazine appear effortless and unhurried – up-to-date but also somehow timeless. The best you can do, whatever the panic-strewn reality.

Most of all I’ll miss good people I’ve shared press days with – from Andy, with whom I’ve worked and had a few beers for 20+ years, and John Moore, the best sub I’ve ever known, right the way back to the 3.00am press nights at Eden Fisher in Southend with Hodge of The Engineer: George Hodgkinson, the white ash worms of his constant cigarettes withering in the ashtray, his RAF slang and wartime stories, and his ability to “fanooker” copy and pictures and flatplans into the required shape and format.

It’s been a lot of fun and it’s been a privilege to work with such people and learn from them.  But now it’s someone else’s turn. I’ll go on writing but I’m also going to do and learn something else. All my pages are passed: let the presses roll.

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Written by johnpullin

October 9, 2014 at 8:44 am

Dr Cable’s industrial medicine

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I don’t claim to be an economist, and am duly deferential to those who do, since anyone who can see patterns and rationalisations for the chaotic jungle that national and international economies have got themselves into is patently gifted. Or is making it up as they go along.

Vince Cable, the UK’s Business and Innovation Secretary, is an economist and I don’t think he’s busking. This morning he’s announcing an “industrial strategy” for his department and, as an unreconstructed Harold Wilsonian disciple, faithful to the idea that planning and a degree of judicious steering can bring economic serenity and perhaps even growth, Cable has been pretty consistent both in opposition and in government about the need for this kind of thinking.

I wish him luck with this, and suspect he’s going to need it. Because while Cable has seemed clear that the path to economic recovery depends on increased value-adding activity,  various of his colleagues in government appear unable to grasp the fundamental link between added value and real growth. How else would one explain the ideas that house-building or extended retail opening hours might kick-start the economy?

[We should be building more houses because of social need and because of simple stock rotation (replacing those no longer fit for purpose), but growth doesn’t come that way: except, of course, for the house builders who like getting their hands on government money. And retailing largely recycles wealth, but doesn’t create it.]

So I suspect that Dr Cable’s Cabinet colleagues – and even perhaps his new departmental “minder”, the arch-Conservative loyalist Michael Fallon who arrived at the business department last week – will be content to let Vince do his stuff to keep him quiet, but won’t then follow it up with much. Value-adding industries, and manufacturing is a prime example but not the only one, are widely seen as “nice to have” but not necessarily as “need to have”. So there may be some lip-service. But not much more.

Follow-up has always been a problem in the past with industrial strategies. Where business and industry want consistency of policy over the medium term, governments have always come and gone, and their industrial ideas come and go with them. Some of the stuff that Dr Cable harks back to has overtones of MinTech and Neddy and the NEB from the 1960s and 1970s: all swept away by the next political shift in the 1980s.

Consensus has been limited. But actually, you can see that in those limited areas where there has been wider political agreement about instruments to promote growth and investment, they’ve been pretty successful. Schemes such as the Manufacturing Advisory Service and bodies such as the Technology Strategy Board and the national technology centres of excellence have survived changes of government and do seem to make a difference. There’s at least some continuity in the skills debate these days too.

But there still seems to me to be a disconnect in views about the economy as a whole, and too many people with economic influence who have wrong ideas about how it can be made to work. Dr Cable strikes me as clear-headed and heading in the right direction; but the bigger question is whether his colleagues are listening to him. I hope they do.

India and the shortage of engineers

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Having written just yesterday that I wouldn’t be writing about India and that I wouldn’t be writing much anyway because I needed to do other things, I’m breaking my own trappist vows almost instantly. That’s because I came across a story in an Indian newspaper that seems to contradict much of what we hear in the UK about the pace of development in countries such as India.

The story relates to the numbers of engineers. Conventional wisdom in the UK is that we don’t produce enough, and that countries such as China and India are now producing so many that the areas where we might still be able to claim advantage – product design, innovation, etc – are likely to be eroded through sheer weight of numbers. In addition, we face the eternal conundrum that we seem to have in the UK a shortage of engineers, yet the laws of supply and demand, which might suggest that engineers’ pay would increase to the point where the attractions would draw in a whole new set of people, don’t seem to apply.

Cut, now, to India, widely perceived as one of the places ready to step in to exploit our apparent engineering weaknesses, and what do we find? Well, this year, according to a report in the Times of India, more than 200,000 places at engineering colleges and technical institutes have remained unfilled, and several Indian states have put in requests to the central All-India Council for Technical Education asking that no further engineering institutes should be allowed to be set up.

What has happened has been that capacity in technology colleges, particularly for courses based on engineering and computers, has more than trebled in five years and in some states about 70% of higher education is in these tech colleges. It’s too much. Entry requirements have been relaxed, but still the places haven’t been filled. Conventional courses in mechanical, electrical and civil engineering are holding up, but sector specific and computing sides have fallen away.

I’m not sure what the lessons are from this except to reinforce the view that getting the supply and demand for engineering skills in balance is a tricky problem almost no matter where you look, and that if we in the UK think we’ve perennially got it wrong, then others may be doing no better.

But it does explain one other thing that I thought rather odd during my recent holiday. In India, it’s commonplace for buildings of all sorts to carry painted-on advertising. Usually the adverts relate to cement companies or underwear (innerwear, as they call it) suppliers. But almost as common are advertisements for college courses in engineering, computing, accountancy, marketing… most of the professions except medicine. Odd, I thought, until I read the report about the shortfall of students. But now I understand.

Double standards in manufacturing

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There’s a crunching irony that The Guardian today publishes a story about business secretary Vince Cable encouraging MPs to seek out and publicise stories of manufacturing excellence just as the UK’s last “indigenous” train builder, Bombardier, is announcing that 1,400 of its workforce in Derby will have to go because it failed to win a major UK order for new trains.

Cable is apparently supporting a “Made by Britain” initiative and will tomorrow ask MPs to find examples from their constituencies of goods manufactured in the UK. The Guardian report – you can read it here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/jul/05/manufacturing-made-by-britain – mentions novel and niche technologies, and custard cream biscuits, as examples.

I don’t want to knock this idea at all. The scheme is backed by Sir Alan Rudge, for many years a loud voice saying cogent things about the decline and under-valuation of manufacturing within the UK economy. I suspect that Sir Alan, though, when he worries publicly about the UK’s ability to sustain itself economically as we continually sell off assets or fail to back existing capabilities, isn’t thinking custard creams. Or even niche businesses in lucrative but inevitably small sectors.

The lost train order that is at least part of the reason for the loss of jobs in Derby is, of course, justified on cost grounds – and others perhaps: I don’t know the ins and outs enough to be able to pronounce on whether Bombardier’s bid was lacking in other respects. But in the cost argument lies a large part of the UK problem. Our measures of value in this country seem very simplistic. We don’t appear to factor in the intangible costs when we award contracts of this kind – the cost, for instance, of picking up the redundancy and social security bill for 1,400 people, the cost to a city such as Derby which is rapidly turning into a one-horse (Rolls-Royce) town, the long-term cost of not having that kind of capability in the UK any more, the loss of skills, the cost to supplier industries and support services. You don’t need cleaners for Bombardier’s offices when they’re closed.

There’s a cost in political credibility as well. People reading The Guardian over breakfast this morning might also have been listening to the radio, where one of Cable’s cabinet colleagues had the thankless task of trying to explain the Bombardier redundancies. It wasn’t convincing, and it’s hard to know how it could have been.

What is convincing, to an increasing degree, is the commitment by the government and others to a view that manufacturing is important to the UK economy: that’s good, but actually, they need now to move this argument along a bit. A “balanced” economy would have bouncy small-business niche-sector manufacturing companies and capabilities in large-scale internationally-traded manufactured items too. The UK needs mass-market and specialised goods, train building and custard creams. And we need new definitions of the value that these different-scale operations bring to the economy as a whole. Or it isn’t going to work.

Opening up engineering

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Another Thursday, another post about The Apprentice? Not so, except in the most tangential way, even though last night’s episode was well up there on the cringe factor. But there was another event yesterday which maybe didn’t get the twitterati quite so exercised, but which could I reckon be in the long term important in terms of attracting and recruiting young people into jobs in business and industry: real jobs, as opposed to those on offer from Lord Sugar.

The UK automotive industry yesterday opened its doors to visits and tours and inspections by groups of young people. The industry was backing a pilot scheme for an initiative by the Business, Innovation and Skills department called See Inside Manufacturing; if it has worked, and there’s no reason to suppose it hasn’t, then it’ll be a government programme of some sort and will spread out across the whole of industry, with visits by school parties and others scheduled into school curriculums and industry’s work practices.

This is a good idea and if it was the government’s idea, then good on them. The rules on who’s allowed inside UK manufacturing companies are designed, of course, for health and safety and the protection of people, but they’re so draconian that they perpetuate the myth that anyone entering a factory with 10 fingers and 10 toes is unlikely to emerge with the same number. Almost certainly fewer, in fact. Even where there has been a lot of interchange and involvement by companies with their local schools and communities, there’s often a bit of shying away from letting the public into the places where things are actually made and done. The shopfloor is a no-go.

But when it happens, what you seem almost universally to get is surprise and enthusiasm and greater understanding. The inside of a factory looks like, well, actually, almost everywhere else. It’s not dark, nor satanic, nor dehumanising; there’s no great mystery and a lot of it is actually very interesting. Fun, even. Who, seeing a computer-aided design package in the place where it is actually being used, wouldn’t want to have a go? Quite why the norm has been to hide these things away from young people and the public in general is very odd. And, I think, pretty unhelpful.

So this new scheme is a good thing and a nice counter-balance to the entertaining inanities that masquerade as business life in The Apprentice. But it could, and I think should, go further than just opening up factory doors.

If we really want to get across the idea that engineering and manufacturing are a normal part of life and intrinsic to everything we do as a species, then why are we so shy about introducing them into other things that are taught in schools? Who is producing material for schools to use in geography or history projects, or language teaching, or economics and business studies, that introduces manufacturing or engineering examples as a normal part of everyday life? The disconnect between people and the things that they use everyday and take for granted runs very deep and isn’t helpful. It really is time to open up. Otherwise, the rat-race view of the world of work that The Apprentice feeds into will continue to deter.

Differentiation, integration, disintegration

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Open, optimistic, direct – those aren’t words you’d have used about the nuclear industry a few years ago, but they applied in spades last night to Anne Lauvergeon, chief executive officer of the French-owned nuclear power station owner and operator Areva. Lauvergeon was in London last night to give the Royal Academy of Engineering’s annual international lecture. Her talk ranged far and wide across the debate about energy provision, but left you in little doubt about her central message: if you’re serious about a low carbon energy policy, then nuclear’s really the only option for base-load provision, as renewables aren’t reliable and pretty much everything else is either dirty or geographically illogical.

All of this is, of course, deeply relevant to the UK, where we’ve ummed and aahed about future energy provision to the point where it’s now a bit of race between getting new plants on stream before the lights go out. Areva and Lauvergeon are pretty central to that as the current contractor of what was built at Sizewell B and the frontrunner for new nuclear stations. Lauvergeon revealed that Areva had met around 120 UK suppliers in the Midlands recently and was now in active talks with 60 of them, including Rolls-Royce and Balfour Beatty. Partners, not suppliers, she prefers to call them.

What she was very keen to get across was that the UK nuclear supply sector wasn’t just being recruited for short-term local work. Areva sees itself as a supplier of nuclear power plants to the world: it’s building new generation plants in Finland, France and China and expects many, many more, a lot of them off the back of whatever the UK decides to buy. She’s complimentary about the way in which the UK government – the current coalition and its predecessor –  is handling the purchasing process (well, I suppose she would have to be), but the warmth seems genuine when she refers to the degree to which the UK and its engineers could take leading roles in the roll-out of new generation plants worldwide. She talks about re-creating a whole sector here.

This, of course, is a matter of both political and historical interest to UK ears. The politics of nuclear in the UK are complex, sometimes savage, and rarely informed by facts. Lauvergeon says openness and honesty are the only ways to dispel doubts, though it probably helps too to spell out that there aren’t, this late in the day, many alternative options that will keep the lights on. She gets quite animated about how the public perception of nuclear waste disposal is of a festering mass of caustic chemicals, ready to consume anything in its path, where the reality is much duller and not scary at all. Give the public the facts and they can judge, she says.

The historical question, though, is interesting too. Why, one of the engineers at last night’s Royal Academy talk wanted to know, had the UK’s nuclear lead, 50 years ago, been dissipated while France was now home to a world leader in the technology? Lauvergeon is too astute a politician to pronounce on UK mistakes. But, she said, in her dozen years at the head of French nuclear power she’d found it a big advantage to have the whole process, from uranium extraction, through power station design, construction and operation, to waste disposal, integrated within one group – with other low carbon technologies in renewables inside the compound too.

There’s a difference between the UK and France here which applies in other sectors, too. Where the French have seen long-term advantage in integration and strong single corporate entities such as Areva, we in the UK have preferred to take the opportunities to raise revenues through actively dis-integrating our infrastructure industries. Which works better? Well, top UK engineers were hanging on every word Lauvergeon spoke last night, and learning a lot from it. Not much doubt who’s in charge now, is there?

The crimes of Vince Cable

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Today’s papers, and yesterday’s too, have been full of righteous stuff about Vince Cable, the UK business secretary. Cable, already something of a maverick within government, stepped “badly out of line” by, er, um, saying what he thought. Asked by a couple of undercover reporters masquerading as constituents, he spoke unguardedly about differences among the coalition government partners and candidly about his views of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.

All right, it was pretty unwise of him: there’s a difference between what you can say as an irresponsible backbench Liberal MP and what you as a minister have signed up for in the way of collective governmental responsibility. Cable got disowned pretty quickly by the Prime Minister and the Liberal Democrat leader too and was perhaps lucky to keep his job, though he’s lost responsibility for deciding on Murdoch’s bid to buy all of British Sky Broadcasting. Several people thought he should have resigned anyway.

I find aspects of this a bit dispiriting. My views are, of course, not necessarily very realistic in these areas: maybe, like Cable, I’m a bit of an innocent abroad. But it seems odd that there’s been no real criticism that I’ve seen of the journalistic methods used to produce this “scoop”. Is it common practice now for reporters to dissemble and to pretend to be what they’re not? I rather hope not, or we’ll never get honest people to go into politics.

And then there are Cable’s views. It may well be inappropriate for a minister, and certainly one in charge of competition policy, to inveigh against a specific company or individual. But too much of the UK media does seem to me, and I suspect to a lot of other people, to be concentrated in too few hands. Whether anything can be done about it is another matter, since it’s the way of the world for the big to get bigger. But it’s not an unreasonable opinion to hold, and I rather like the idea that a minister feels like this too.

Ditto the alleged Cable views on City bonuses, where he’s reported as having said that “ways and means would be found” to ensure that bonus payments to already-fat cats this year should attract some form of retribution. In the atmosphere of recrimination and retraction that’s followed Cable’s remarks, one Conservative MP who called for Cable to be punished had the temerity to say bonuses should not be on the political agenda and were necessary. Er, no. Does he have no idea of the distaste which this kind of behaviour has engendered? As with Murdoch, Cable is saying no more nor less than what many others feel.

I don’t hold any brief for Cable as a politician or as a minister, and it may well be that he’s temperamentally unsuited for government – I was disappointed a month or so back when he allowed his appearance on Strictly Come Dancing to leak out in an important speech on skills, with the TV show then completely obliterating the serious topic in the coverage. But I had also hoped that the first coalition government in my lifetime might lead to a different politics in which honesty and internal debate could come to the fore. That now looks a forlorn hope.

Written by johnpullin

December 22, 2010 at 7:48 pm

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