Resolving an engineering crisis?

Doffing his metaphorical cap at one company (yes, just one!) within the world motor industry, Iain Robertson admits to feeling both enthused, yet frustrated, after experiencing an attempt at addressing market need.

Allow me to nail my allegiance to a cross. Infiniti is to Nissan, as Lexus is to Toyota. Although it is a little-known brand in the UK, it possesses a slightly better repute in Europe but is respected in North America, where it has been extant for the best part of thirty years. It is an interesting component of the Renault-Nissan strategic alliance, although its latest products show distinctly Teutonic leanings, with a sturdy bias towards the Stuttgart Steamroller that is Mercedes-Benz (which provides both running gear and platforms to Infiniti, further adding to the complex melange of cross-brand fertilisation projects that exist in the car business).

The cross-nailing arises from an intriguing worldwide programme that the company has carried out from its Hong Kong HQ, which is, in effect, an ‘X-Factor/Britain’s Got Talent’ for the engineering sector…minus, thank the Good Lord, the self-propelled might of Simon Cowell, even though some of its modules might lean in that generally crass and commercial direction. Infiniti has an alliance-promoted link to the Renault F1 team, run out of Enstone, in leafy Oxfordshire.

This, in itself, is something of a follow-on from its earlier brand association with the Red Bull F1 equipe, when Sebastian Vettel was its World Championship winning star turn. In truth, I worry about the motor industry. As has been proven in recent times, it needs a front-line association with a pinnacle sporting medium. The truth is, they work together quite well. However, you can dispense with any hopes of racing car developments turning into effective road car enhancements these days, because, under its current, confused and confusing rules, even the ‘pinnacle’ aspect is under serious fire. As a political aside, the sooner that octogenarian Bernie Ecclestone steps down from his role as the Grand Puppetmaster, the better might be that sporting endeavour’s chances of becoming little more than an international media ‘switch off’.

The old adage of racing on Sunday, selling on Monday that was exercised by practitioners, such as Colin Chapman, of Lotus fame, is long gone. While tenuous links to the F1 scene have led to some minor developments in the medical industry, not least through the use of carbon-fibre and other man-made materials and both mechanical and electronic advancements, the benefits are small. It used to be that the phenomenal, sky-high budgets in F1 would result in some fascinating road car spin-offs but they ceased towards the end of the last Millennium.

Yet, Infiniti has gained from a brand profiling exercise, which does presume a broader market acceptance of the value of Formula One, which needs to be balanced against the relative ‘glory’ of the association and its otherwise lofty and untouchable repute. Whether that can be perceived as beneficial, or not, is up to the marketing bods justifying their decisions…which they do, regardless.

However, on the periphery of all these shenanigans, ‘little’ Infiniti has developed a ‘Find an Engineer’ programme that dips its toe into the sad and sorry educational mess that numerous international governments have created over the past couple of decades. In the UK, we are still suffering from the fall-out of Tony Blair’s ill-founded ‘Education, Education, Education’ remit, which insisted that it was every child’s inalienable right to be provided a seat in places of higher education.

Without actually having to earn those seats, in one fell swoop, past educational standards plummeted to all-time lows and, in the UK at least, we now have a nation of ill-skilled ‘Business Marketing Management’ degree-holders, none of which have any job prospects. In my past, it was the History degree course that drew those persons, who had not the foggiest idea of how their futures might pan out! This pseudo-socialist ‘dream’, which was more governmentally, populace control-orientated, may have succeeded in vote-catching but its self-serving attitude took no account of either industrial, or commercial needs. Politicians clearly had not spoken with businesses.

As a result, our industry needs desperately young engineers…but has zero access to them. It is an unhappy situation.

Sold under the handle of Infiniti Engineering Academy, in effect, a worldwide talent scouting exercise whittles down, from thousands of applicants, seven regional competitions, the sole winners of each (ie. seven persons) will receive a year-long salaried internment, with expenses paid, spending six months with the Renault F1 team and then a final six months at Infiniti’s technical base at Cranfield, in the Home Counties. From purely selfish and mildly xenophobic reasons, I was sorely disappointed that not ONE candidate attending the European Round of the ‘Challenge’ comes from the UK!

engineering crisis
Infiniti Engineering Academy students with the Renault Sport F1 Team RS16 and the Infiniti Q50.

As a member of the media, my value in attending the British-based round lay in being tasked with making some character assessments of the ten, male European finalists. While they were all charming people, ranging in ages from 22 to 36 years and coming from France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Romania and Germany, I must admit that the Media Q&A session uncovered very limited original thoughts from any of them. The concept intention was to place them under a high-pressure barrage of questions that would gauge their reactions. I was quite disappointed in the results and lack of intrinsic knowledge on show. There was no stand-out candidate.

However, it was only one of several exercises held over an intense and closely monitored and judged two days at Enstone that included an engineering written examination, a ‘design an effective factory layout’ exercise, the building of a hybrid model car (built by two teams) that would be raced against its rival, physical reaction tests and a circuit-based exercise, in which an Infiniti motorcar, suitably modified to slide easily at low speeds, would be driven by Renault F1 driver, Kevin Magnussen, while the candidates responded to questions posed by a remote adjudicator. Very ‘talent show’.

Intriguingly enough, when interviewed one-on-one, each of the candidates professed to being far more interested in working with the F1 team than the car company, which does not really respond to the perceived need. Something needs to be done speedily to redress the balance. After all, children playing with building blocks in the nursery are surely natural candidates for an engineering job in later life? There is an additional aspect related to sex. Nowhere near enough female students are being groomed for engineering careers, which is a worrying trend in a modern society.

The European victor was Ricardo Manfredini, from Brescia, Italy. He was presented with his European prize, worth around £150,000, by the aforementioned F1 driver. A mechanical engineer, he is studying currently for his Masters Degree in Aerodynamic Engineering for Motorsports, at Brescia University. He said of his prize: “I still cannot believe that I have won. Now I must concentrate and do my very best to prove that I am a worthy winner to make the most of this incredible opportunity.” I am delighted to state that Ricardo was THE stand-out candidate in my view.

In my honest opinion, this exercise has highlighted the dramatic shortage of available engineering talent across Europe but most especially in the UK. Good on Infiniti for attempting to turn the tide by addressing the requirements. Three years ago, there were three winners. Last year, there were five. This year, seven. However, the fact that only three members of the UK motoring press felt enamoured enough to attend the event does highlight that the media is not thinking broadly enough about the market’s real needs. Despite Infiniti’s best attempts to work up some enthusiasm, it was thwarted by a couldn’t care less attitude. Now, that is very sad!

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