Orla Feely, winner of the ESB Outstanding Contribution to Engineering at the Engineers Ireland Excellence Awards 2015 asks is it time Ireland began to think of itself as an engineering nation?
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“Want to get rich? You need to study engineering.” This was the headline that appeared in a column I wrote for The Irish Times last June. The headline was not mine – as we know, it is not even true. However, it did its job, attracting readership and lively feedback that has continued over the intervening months.

The piece began with reference to another headline that had recently appeared in the press: “What degree should you study to become a billionaire? The result might surprise you!” In fact it had not been at all surprising to read that a study of the Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest, like previous studies of top CEOs, revealed that their most common field of study, by a considerable margin, was engineering.

For these individuals and many others, an engineering education, designed to deliver creative, versatile and numerically adept problem solvers into the most dynamic sectors of the economy, was a springboard to success. More broadly, there are countries that have built and sustained much of their wealth and reputation on a bedrock of engineering talent. They are rightly proud of this resource, they are aware of its importance and they work to strengthen it.

We in Ireland (and I write here about the Republic of Ireland – the situation in Northern Ireland is somewhat different) have not traditionally thought of ourselves as an engineering nation. Is it time we started?

The country’s development in sectors such as electronics, pharmaceuticals, software and medical devices since the 1980s has been nothing short of extraordinary, taking us from a standing start to an envied role on the world stage. At the heart of all of these sectors are engineers: designing, creating and innovating. They do this in multinational and indigenous enterprises from Leixlip to Westport to Ringaskiddy, and in the heart of Dublin.

Their activity was a substantial contributor to our period of unprecedented economic growth, and then to sustaining the economy through more recent years. From the Quark chip, the first Intel product developed from inception in Ireland, to Dairymaster’s fully computerised milking parlour, the impact of their innovation is gathering pace.

Irish engineers shine in the profession internationally, where the requirement for technical knowhow, creativity and cross-cultural people skills seems to play to national strengths. David O’Reilly of Chevron and Martin Naughton of Glen Dimplex, both engineers, are among the most successful business leaders to have emerged from this country.

Analog Devices, one of the first multinationals to establish a significant presence in Ireland, now has a University of Limerick engineering graduate as president and CEO. Many more Irish engineers have ascended to the top tier within the world’s most successful companies. Others are the driving forces behind some of our most successful start-ups and SMEs.

Engineering and our national deliberations


However, there is a danger in the fact that engineering does not figure, other than as an occasional afterthought, in our national deliberations. Those not involved in the profession have little awareness of it, or link it solely with construction, even as the diversity of engineering innovation further enriches our lives and underpins our economy. Engineers Ireland does excellent and innovative work to counteract this, but the sector has no high-profile national champion to command public attention.

A useful comparator in this regard is our nearest neighbour, where a number of leading national figures are keen to associate themselves with engineering and to advance the profession. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne repeatedly references engineering in his speeches and his public visits. The £1 million Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering “rewards and celebrates the engineers responsible for a ground-breaking innovation that has been of global benefit to humanity”.

The Prince Philip medal, won in 2005 by the late Jim Dooge, rewards “exceptional contribution to engineering as a whole through practice, management or education”. Additional high-profile figures such as James Dyson and Jeremy Clarkson use their public platform to share their passion for engineering, backed up in Dyson’s case by the establishment of the Dyson School of Design Engineering at Imperial College London. Isambard Kingdon Brunel, championed by Clarkson, came second only to Winston Churchill in the 2002 BBC Great Britons poll, and was the central figure in the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.

Clearly Ireland cannot match the great British engineering heritage. Although we have had many great engineers, we have no Brunel, instantly identifiable in his stovepipe hat. However, even if we largely missed the original Industrial Revolution, we came of age during the most recent revolution, and are adapted to its pace. We have succeeded in riding recent waves in technology without losing our competitive edge.

There is a dynamism and agility to our profile that is less evident in longer-established engineering nations. Some other countries seen as competitors for engineering investment are starting to lose their sheen. Sectors such as automotive engineering in which we have traditionally had little presence are starting to come within our reach, as they call more and more on our areas of strength in ICT.

Ireland’s competitive position


If we ensure that the considerations of engineering are front and centre in all relevant areas of public policy debate, we could build on our achievements to date and deliver something even more significant in Ireland. If not, we could lose our competitive position simply through not paying attention.

We need to make sure our education system, at all levels, understands the needs of engineering. We need strong vocational training as well as graduate and postgraduate degrees. Recent changes to mathematics at secondary level have de-emphasised topics of most relevance to engineering. The Leaving Certificate Engineering curriculum is a very distant relative of the modern profession. We can do better here.

There is an insatiable appetite worldwide for the best engineering talent. We need to incentivise the inflow and retention of this talent at all levels from students to industry leaders. By attracting women into the profession in greater numbers, we can improve our pool of talent and the diversity of our ideas.

We need to ensure that we have agile and responsive instruments to support innovation in start-ups, SMEs and multinationals.

Manifestos are currently being prepared that will indicate the direction in which our political parties are seeking to take the country. Will the needs of engineering figure within them?

Great engineering has delivered a lot for Ireland. With a little attention, it can deliver a lot more.

Orla FeelyOrla Feely is vice-president for research, innovation and impact and a professor of electronic engineering at University College Dublin. She is a Fellow of Engineers Ireland, the Irish Academy of Engineering and the IEEE, and a Member of the Royal Irish Academy. She was the winner of the ESB Outstanding Contribution to Engineering award  at the Engineers Ireland Excellence Awards 2015 in association with ESB. Orla was presented with the award at the sixth annual Engineers Ireland Excellence Awards in a ceremony at the InterContinental Hotel in Dublin.

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“Want to get rich? You need to study engineering.” This was the headline that appeared in a column I wrote for The Irish Times last June. The headline was not mine – as we know, it is not even true. However, it did its job, attracting readership and lively feedback...