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Lord Sugar provokes engineers' wrath

Engineers today accused entrepreneur Lord Sugar of damaging the public perception of the profession after he said on this week’s episode of The Apprentice that engineers make bad businessmen.

Sugar became a target for criticism after he made the surprise decision to ‘fire’ senior design engineer Glenn Ward from the competition because he was an engineer.

“I have never yet come across an engineer that can turn his hand to business.”

Lord Sugar

On last night’s programme, Sugar told Ward: “I have never yet come across an engineer that can turn his hand to business.

“I’m not convinced that a leopard is ever going to change his spots, and [that] an engineer is going to have the right ideas to come in business with me.”

He later said that Ward was “exactly the example” of an engineer who fails at business.

Lowly status

Engineers today told NCE that the statements were unfair and did little to help the public perception of engineering.

ICE member Martyn Davies called Sugar’s comments “crass”.

He said: “The engineering profession has been banging on about the lowly status of engineers for as long as I can remember. It was a problem when I became a member [of the ICE] in 1978. It is still a problem. And a very British one.

Davies also criticised the BBC for its portrayal of the event, which he said made it seem as though Sugar “was merely stating the obvious”.

“It’s deeply unhelpful to the profession … to have a man who is essentially a wheeler dealer sneering at engineers.” 

Martyn Davies, ICE member

“It’s deeply unhelpful to the profession as well as to every person in this country to have a man who is essentially a wheeler dealer sneering at engineers and making such patently daft and sweeping generalisations,” said Davies. 

Halcrow principal engineer Julie Hunt agreed. She said: “Lord Sugar’s comment on prime time TV could do considerable damage to the profile of engineering professions. 

“However, as they say, there is no such thing a bad publicity − so let’s make the most of it, as did Wales after Anne Robinson’s outburst.”

Hunt noted the irony that the preview of next week’s episode contained clips showing the contestants travelling to France from St Pancras Station, a symbol of engineering success.

Methodical business people

Arup design engineer Paula Walsh told NCE that engineers can, and do, make good business people.

Engineers are suited to business because they are usually problem solvers, used to working in a team and accommodating unexpected changes, she said. “By bringing to the business environment this thorough and methodical approach, which is important in pressurised environments, an engineer can be a wise hiring for any business.”

Twitter was also buzzing with complaints about Lord Sugar.

Twitter user @conoro said: “Woke up still steaming over [Lord Sugar’s] mind-bogglingly stupid line last night.

“The BBC should exit Alan Sugar from the building for that stupidity.”

“Lord Sugar should know that 16% of directors of FTSE 100 companies have an engineering degree.”

Ed Dablin, Aecom

@wastewacker said it is more common for engineers to have a good business sense than vice versa. “I’ve managed both although business people capable of design engineering are far less common,” he said.

But @ASBO_Allstar suggested that engineering consultancies might shy away from giving their top jobs to engineers. “I’d be very interested to see which large consultancies have real engineers as CEOs or board members.”

NCE Graduate Awards finalist and Aecom graduate civil engineer Ed Dablin said: “Lord Sugar should know that 16% of directors of FTSE 100 companies have an engineering degree.”

Reinforcing old views

Manufacturers’ organisation EEF chief executive Terry Scuoler tweeted that Sugar’s comments reinforce old views. “The list of engineers who have made good entrepreneurs is endless,” said Scuoler.

And engineer and entrepreneur Will King, who founded toiletries company King of Shaves, tweeted that he was “saddened”, and that Sugar was “so out of touch”.

“He’s had a couple of bad experiences with some of his engineers who were given a commercial role.”

Nick Hewer, The Apprentice

On the discussion show The Apprentice: You’re Fired, aide Nick Hewer explained that Sugar’s opinion was formed by bad experiences with engineers in the past.

Hewer said: “He’s had a couple of bad experiences with some of his engineers who were given a commercial role and it didn’t quite work out.”

He insisted that Sugar does not have a problem with engineers. “Lord Sugar loves engineers,” he said. “He is an engineer. And everything he’s learned is from people like [Ward].”

Presenter Dara O Briain joked to Ward: “You’re an engineer, and, as we know, that is an appalling thing to be.”

Ward explained that he is an electronic design engineer who works in the field of audio equipment.

  • What do you think of Lord Sugar’s comments? Tell us in the comments below.

Readers' comments (34)

  • Lord Sugar made a very inconsiderate comment, he should apologize.

    To prove him wrong here are are 10 engineers who are more successful that he is.

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  • Of course British Industry has gone from strength to strength with our post-war removal of Engineers from Company Boards and their replacement with money men.

    By the way, can anyone name a well engineered Amstrad product? Perhaps his perception is accurate, perhaps he hasn't met any good Engineers ;o))

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  • Mark Hansford

    If engineers in the UK are as inept as those in Germany responsible for my six hours of delay getting to and from Frankfurt airport yesterday (new traffic control tower glitches), then I fully support Lord Sugar's view. It always comes back to perception - and if engineers are only ever seen as causing delays to the travelling public through botched - or seemingly botched - infrastructure upgrades, then the view is going to be that we (yes, I am an engineer) cannot run a bath, let alone a company.

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  • Are UK engineers still seen as inept in the way that Mark describes, or have things improved at all?

    ICE president Peter Hansford thinks the latter -- he told us this morning: "We have no reason to think that this is a commonly held view. Only this week eleven civil engineers were named in the Queen's birthday honours announcement -- engineers' contribution to society and indeed business has never been more evident."

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  • This drives me crazy. It seems the only time engineers are in the press is when things aren’t working. T5 for example is remembered for the baggage handling problems when first opened rather than the excellent work done completing the project. As engineers is it our modesty that has doomed us? I love being an engineer and I think we're brilliant so lets all get bragging especially if it stops comments like that made by Lord Sugar.

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  • T5 is an excellent example. As I recall, the problems were eventually attributed to management arrogance refusing sufficient systems tests and denying suitable access for the baggage handlers to get into work, so in reality caused by business managers not Engineers even though public perceptions were otherwise.

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  • So, Lord Sugar has doesn’t have a high opinion of engineers in business and in making his comments on The Apprentice on Wednesday evening, he seems to have upset a lot of people in our industry. Personally, I only became aware of this issue through Friday morning’s NCE Daily News e-mail, and not through any other media sources.

    Yet, whilst individuals are quoted in the NCE article moaning and complaining about it, what are our representative bodies doing to respond? A quick trawl of various websites on Friday lunchtime, including Engineering Council, ICE, IMechE, IET, IEEE and IStructE to name just a few, shows just one mention of Lord Sugar’s remarks – well done IET.

    In the last few days, the media has been covering a story relating to a BBC TV programme about the manufacture of clothing in India by a high street store. The store considered that it had been misrepresented took action to rigorously defend their good name; this resulted in the BBC Trust instructing the BBC to issue an apology to the store concerned.

    Bearing in mind the deafening silence coming from our representative bodies, and particularly the lack of a robust rebuttal of his views, perhaps Lord Sugar might have a point …


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  • The tone of this article is a little bit too tabloid paper, NCE is supposed to be a distinguished chronicle for Civil Engineers. Why do engineers want to be regarded as good business people? Our profession will never earn respect by trying to imitate businessmen. What we need is business people wanting to be engineers, after all anyone can start a business but it takes a very special set of skill to design and build a bridge, skyscraper, reservoir or railway. Come on NCE, its fairly obvious to anyone that most people would rather have an engineer running a business than Lord Sugar designing a bridge!

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  • David Williams

    What Lord Sugar thinks is not important. As with all media 'celebrities' it is just a matter of time before he topples off his pedistal and then how the media will crow! In the meantime and thereafter we will all carry on making things work inspite of the interference and denegration.

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  • Just for clarity, the gentleman in the episode of The Apprentice who the generic comment was pointed at was actually a Software Engineer not a Civil Engineer. I think the comment made by Lord Sugar was very general and if challenged, he may retract his comment once the facts as quoted above are presented to him.

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