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Letters: Why can't we bring back sandwich courses?


Reading your article “The Will for Skills” reminded me of the advantages of the old “sandwich” type degree courses (NCE 16-23 July). In 1964, I commenced a “sandwich” civil engineering degree course at the City University, or the Northampton College of Advanced Technology as it was known. For each of the four years of the course, I spent six months with my sponsoring firm, and six months studying. As a result, I came out of university with a degree enhanced by two years industry experience. In today’s world, such a student could expect to be more employable than a raw graduate, and would be less burdened by student loan debt as they would have been able to partly pay the fees. I cannot help but wonder why such courses are not offered today by one of our more enterprising universities as the advantages would attract entrants to the profession.

  • Tony Farrar (M)

Editor’s note: It would be very interesting to hear from universities on this as, yes, it seems to be a concept worth revisiting

What’s wrong with lights on sticks?

I am surprised by the editor’s note to a letter by John Ratsey about improving rail reliability (NCE 16-23 July). The editor states that “we do know that the aviation industry has a safety record the envy of all transport modes” and suggests it is “one that is well worth learning from”. I very much doubt that this is the view of Britain’s railway industry. Airlines crash planes every year and kill passengers - matter of fact. Britain’s railways have not killed a passenger for the last five years - matter of fact. Who should be learning from whom?

I doubt that I am the only one who is quite happy to have our railways controlled by “lights on sticks”, thank you. Long may this safety record, the best in Europe, continue!

  • David Myles


What can aviation teach rail about safety?

Your Comment last week made me sit up and wonder (NCE 16-23 July). I hope I am not a dyed-in-the-wool luddite, but lights on sticks (as you so elegantly put it) have kept you and I more or less safe on the railways these many years. A large proportion of the regrettable instances of failure have had a significant human element contributing to the incident, so I submit the crude devices you refer to have served mankind well.

But I was intrigued at the claim regarding the potential capacity increase that might be achieved through digitised control, presumably by eliminating the safety first block working as now practiced. The capacity of the South West Trains line might be increased by 40%, but that infers a headway on each track of 60 seconds to 90 seconds and begs the question how many platforms will be required at the departure and arrival points to ensure all this capacity is used effectively? And what happens in the event of a sudden incident if trains are following so closely?

  • Peter Monk


Following the money

In mid/late June we had several articles in NCE encouraging us to “spread the word” about what we do and how we can attract more and better talent into our profession. And of course there is the current emphasis on attracting more women to the top jobs.

Regretfully I’ve heard these arguments throughout my career. However, taking a look at the advertised vacancies I saw one in NCE’s 16 June issue for a chartered civil engineer with a wide range of experience covering technical aspects, financial management and contract administration. The employer is a local authority. The salary offered was £33,857.

This salary is equivalent to recent graduates of other professions. Need I say anything more if employers offer such low salaries and are presumably able to attract applications?

  • Malcolm Noyce (F)

Time for action on skills

In terms of the skills shortage and the fact that it is back with a bang (NCE 16-23 July), I remain frustrated at the inertia in the industry and I am convinced that rather than looking for a solution to the skills shortage we should be focusing on finding a way to fix the apathy of the sector. There is too much talk and not enough action.

Will roads minister Andrew Jones’ expectation that bidders demonstrate their commitment to training do the trick? No. This already happens through the procurement process on many projects, but remains disconnected to the real skills needs of the sector and often focuses more on local need, without sustainability plans. What is needed is more joined up skills plans running parallel to pipelines of projects.

In mid-February this year, you featured the pan-industry campaign to boost engineering technicians. I applaud this, but is it being properly integrated into the workforce plan of civil engineering companies? And why has this not been started before? It is not as if it’s a new concept.

Having myself started as an apprentice in the mid-1980s and having prospered in a career spanning civil engineering and education, I along with two other directors, decided to take some positive action on apprentice recruitment and formed a specialist shared apprenticeship scheme to provide a solution to sustainable staff needs and removing the barriers to recruitment. My company specialises in apprentices and supporting them through the process. We offer security of tenure and support to the apprentice, while providing companies with a way to minimise risk and maximise benefits.

It is not a difficult decision to make and I hope that more companies see this note as a call to arms. Your performance in apprenticeship recruitment is not good enough. It is time to stop procrastinating, setting up working groups, blaming government policy and moaning about not finding staff and do something about it.

  • Mark Scott (M) director, Futureworks(Yorkshire)

Shovels or white collars?

David Johnson questions “does digging holes with shovels help make our profession attractive?”(NCE 16-23 July). My initial response after reading the Editor’s note is better not repeated here. He comments: “we” love the opportunity that technology is bringing, “we” love seeing traditional engineering techniques, but there is room for both, “we” hope. Who is this “we”?

  • John Firth (F)

Site responsibitity is essential for engineers

Although Susan Clements sets out the current ICE position on the subject of site experience for professional qualification, I would still assert that a period on site in a responsible position is an essential part of an engineer’s training (NCE 16-23 June). It is hoped that the ICE will reverse the earlier revision to the regulations such that defined minimum periods of site and office experience form a mandatory part of the requirements for the professional review. From recent experience it may be considered inappropriate to leave the assessment to the judgement of the reviewers since their own site experience in the particular discipline, say if coming from an academic background, can be limited, which may influence the assessment.

The comments to date on this subject, as my own, seem to have been based on the site experience required for the professional review. However, once chartered status is achieved, it does not imply that an engineer is then solely office based - many engineers proceed to take very senior roles on site.

  • Richard Tomkins (F) 27 Denmark Road, London SW19 4PG

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