Looking for tomorrow’s engineering leaders

We don’t just need more engineers in the UK – we need more engineering leaders. And where better to find them than among our undergraduates? There are now plenty of excellent initiatives to get schoolchildren interested in science and engineering, and these are feeding through to increasing applications at degree level. Targeting more specific leadership programmes at undergraduate level is now needed. Those that walk through the door of our universities, signed up to a four-year Masters in engineering, are all high quality candidates, destined for a great career. But also among them are some exceptional individuals who have what it takes to play a leadership role in the sector.

To be honest, these individuals might rise to the top anyway – eventually. But as we know the need for leadership is there, it makes sense to help them on their way as much as we can. When being interviewed for the new Sheffield Engineering Leadership Academy (SELA), one of our students described it perfectly. He said that being part of SELA would get him on the motorway to a leadership role; without it, he’d have to get there on the A-roads.

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Young engineers in discussion at a Sheffield Engineering Leadership Academy bootcamp

SELA is the first extra-curricular leadership programme in a UK university to cover all the engineering disciplines – unashamedly modelled on US initiatives like the Gordon Engineering Leadership Program at MIT.  The RAEng leadership awards also target undergraduates across the UK, this is an excellent scheme but, necessarily, has a limited reach. Running leadership programmes on campuses is a sensible solution to reach a critical mass and to enable time-pressured engineering students to engage more easily.

“One student said that being part of SELA would get him on the motorway to a leadership role; without it, he’d have to get there on the A-roads"

It is also in our interest to do it –  and by ‘our’, I mean both UK plc and the University of Sheffield. We do believe the benefits to industry will be enormous – helping them to identify exceptional candidates and starting their leadership education early. But there’s a benefit to Sheffield’s Faculty of Engineering as well. We want to be able to identify potential future leaders in engineering research and enable them to assess if studying with us for a PhD is a worthwhile step for their career. Our undergraduates  are taught by academics who are active in research, but they don’t get experience of actually doing research until their final year dissertation project. The SELA programme includes two summer work placements and these can be in either research or industry. We believe that an earlier taste of working on a research project will open their eyes to different career options and maximise future benefits from academic/industry partnerships.

The needs of industry and academic engineering research are closely aligned. A 2011 EPSRC / University of Cambridge review of international approaches to manufacturing research concluded that to compete globally, the UK needs more engineering research leaders. The report looked at approaches to manufacturing research in the USA, Germany, Japan, Sweden, China and Singapore which were significantly different to the UK and which could offer competitive advantage. It found the UK lagged behind these major manufacturing nations in a number of aspects, including the importance placed on the role of doctoral engineers in underpinning the manufacturing research base. The report stated that without close interaction between the research base and real-world manufacturing, the UK would not be able to compete in the new science and technology based industries of the future and that key to this interaction was having leaders with experience in both industry and research.

So what extra skills do we need to provide within a leadership programme and how do we identify the students who will most stand to benefit? At Sheffield, we’re doing this in a very structured way, defining the attributes that we want the SELA cohort to display now, the additional skills we believe they will need and how those will be taught. For example, we believe our future leaders need to be enterprising, to be able to generate new ideas and turn them into reality. For this they need creativity, proactivity, the ability to problem solve and to work positively within constraints if required. We look for evidence of this in a student’s application to join SELA and in the interview. Once selected, SELA provides training in these areas through the initial boot camp that students attend and two group projects they undertake over the two years of the programme.

We’ve identified other leadership qualities in a similar way: good judgement – the ability to take risk, uncertainty and ethical considerations into account in your decisions; technical and academic ability; the ability to inspire others, to create and communicate a compelling and purposeful vision of the future; flexibility – to accept and respond to change; self-awareness of your strengths and weaknesses and a willingness to learn; and finally personal vision, ambition and courage. SELA seeks to enhance these attributes through work placements, skills workshops, group projects, guest speakers and mentors – and those delivering the training come from both research and industry, to reflect how both areas combine for mutual benefit in the programme.

The University of Sheffield may be the first in the UK to set up this kind of engineering leadership academy, but given the advantages these schemes bring for all involved, don’t be surprised to see other institutions follow suit.

Prof Hopkinson is Professor of Manufacturing Engineering, University of Sheffield and Director of the Sheffield Engineering Leadership Academy

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