Sanjoy Sen is a chemical engineer and was Parliamentary Candidate for Aberdeen North during the 2015 General Election.
As an engineer with some twenty years’ experience in industry, it’s certainly fair to say that recent events in steel have caught my eye.
I’m not delving into the underlying politics here, but instead expressing (somewhat belatedly) my thanks to British Steel for the brief but formative time I spent there and also reflecting on what I learned from it.
Back in 1994, my first undergraduate year was drawing to a close and I was searching high and low for a summer industrial placement. I wasn’t getting far, but the constant stream of rejection letters was at least providing endless amusement to my student housemates.
Finally, though, I managed to convince British Steel (who had rejected my initial application) to look again and to offer me a stint.
Reflecting on this at a recent careers event, the key observations I shared with today’s students were simply this: keep looking and don’t be deterred. Finding a job can sometimes feel like a job itself, even more so in today’s international recruitment environment.
In the North Sea, everything (save the roaring flarestack) is understandably enclosed in pipes and vessels. Steelmaking, by contrast, is all visual, from the mini-mountain range of iron ore stockpiles to the giant finished sections whizzing out of the mills.
But most of all, that glowing metal river that flows from the blast furnaces. There aren’t many other work environments as stimulating as heavy industry, yet a generation has been conditioned towards careers chained to a computer.
Unhelpful stereotypes of scientists (‘nerds in labcoats’) and engineers (‘nerds in hard hats’) haven’t helped recruitment so it’s encouraging to note some more positive media coverage of late. Not before time.
So, why the gratitude to British Steel?
Midway through my placement, we dropped in on a technical presentation. Despite somewhat shamelessly ‘winging it’ in places, the speaker nevertheless finished to generous applause. Settling back in the car for the trip back across site, however, my own supervisors’ incandescent expressions suddenly loomed large.
That presentation, they informed me, was somewhat disappointing before confiding that a similar performance from me might easily result in a fatality (my own). That, readers, was the cleaned-up version for ConservativeHome; in reality, the same expletive appeared four times in a single sentence.
What followed is what stays with me to this day and I am hugely appreciative of it.
On a near-daily basis, those same supervisors found time to provide coaching on one aspect or another of effective communication, from getting the technical facts straight (including “if you don’t know the answer to something, say so”) through to how to convey effectively a complex message to a varied audience. And they sat with endless patience through countless dry runs to ensure I could deliver a successful final-day event.
You couldn’t buy better training than that yet there I was being paid for it; I’ve got nothing but praise for my university but those are skills you won’t pick up in academia. So, a brief request: if you’re able to offer work experience, please do so, it could prove so valuable to someone. (Maybe first refer to current employment law in terms of coaching would-be under-performers, though.)
What I’d learned didn’t fully resonate until later, though. Back at university, with all second-years tasked with delivering a technical presentation, my British Steel talk didn’t just win, it walked it.
None of this, sadly, ever made me a supreme orator. But it did help me understand the value of communication, something us engineers sometimes risk missing.
I did have some sympathy for a former HR advisor who unintentionally ruffled a few feathers. They weren’t claiming that technical expertise didn’t count; they just wanted to stress that people, and their motives, can prove more complicated than machinery so it’s often all about ‘selling’ your ideas effectively.
Whilst engineers remain under-represented in politics, despite a useful skill-set (innovation, numeracy, problem-solving), by contrast, there’s no shortage of lawyers in Parliament.
Whilst that balance isn’t quite what it might be, perhaps we’d do well to emulate some of their positives, especially in terms of assimilating information and framing an argument concisely.
British Steel subsequently offered me the further opportunity of a year’s placement comprising varied stints across the site. Not taking it up sometimes feels like a career regret although I was fortunate to instead join ICI’s equivalent summer scheme, back then a route into their well-regarded graduate programme.
I went on to enjoy four years there but, unbeknown to the younger me, the rot had set in some years earlier and it wasn’t long before it began to be sold off piecemeal. (Nowadays, you’re showing your age if you recall ICI as that blue-chip bellwether of British industry; today’s under-40s just stare back blankly upon hearing the name.)
At the time of writing, steel’s future hangs in the balance; major sites could be lost or instead could be reprieved, with the British Steel name making a comeback.
Let’s wish those businesses and employees all the best at this challenging time; I owe them a debt of gratitude and I’m sure there are countless others who do also.