RICHARD Noble, the leader of the team that set the world land speed record, has condemned the “diabolical” state of British engineering during a trip to Yorkshire.
Mr Noble said teachers and businesses must encourage more children to take up careers in engineering, in order to make Britain’s economy more innovative and competitive.
He made the comments after delivering the keynote speech at the Institute of Directors’ Yorkshire and Humber Director of the Year awards, which were held at the National Railway Museum in York.
Entrepreneur Mr Noble was in charge of the team that set the land speed record of 763mph in ThrustSSC in 1997. For his latest project, he is attempting to create the first car to reach 1,000mph. It’s hoped that tests could be carried out on the vehicle – the Bloodhound supersonic car – on a race track in South Africa next summer.
During his speech at the awards dinner, Mr Noble outlined the technical challenges facing the team behind Bloodhound.
Speaking after the dinner, Mr Noble said: “We broke the sound barrier in 1997. The Americans decided that they wanted to challenge us, so we said that we’d better build the ultimate car.
“Sadly, Steve Fossett (the American adventurer who was planning to beat the world land speed record) was killed in a flying accident in 2007, so their challenge came to nothing.
“We found ourselves out on our own. We’d been asked by Lord Drayson (the then Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology) to run an iconic project for schools to create a new generation of engineers.
“We didn’t realise how bad the situation is – it’s absolutely diabolical. To give you an idea, our partners on the rocket programme had to interview 80 people to get a quality apprentice. For us to get a quality design engineer, we had to interview 60 people. The standard is very low.”
He said too many people in Briton had taken the “general view” that the UK could move away from manufacturing.
He added: “Manufacturing has now gone down to 13 per cent of GDP. Even the Swiss have got a higher level of manufacturing than the Brits.”
He said the media and teachers could play a bigger role in encouraging young people to go into engineering. He said the “rags and spanners” view of engineering was held by many teachers.
He added: “They say to the kids, ‘You don’t want to go into engineering, that’s what your dad did. It’s dirty. It’s oily’.”
Mr Noble acknowledged that a lot of companies had tried to produce scientific and engineering programmes for schools.
He added: “They’ve all lacked one thing, which is the stimulant. When I went to school, the only thing I wanted to do was get out of the place because it was so boring.
“Today, school is still boring, but outside kids have this fantastic virtual world. They have so much to get excited about. So you’ve got to compete and you’ve actually got to make education really exciting, with a stimulant.
“We’ve got a 1,000 mile-an-hour car, that’s a fantastic stimulant. With Bloodhound, you’re pioneering something. A large number of engineering companies are asking us to train their executives to act as Bloodhound ambassadors. We’ve got 500 ambassadors who are going out to schools.”
Mr Noble said changes in attitudes would come from society’s grass roots, rather than the Government.
He added: “We’ve developed a culture that is risk averse. What is needed now, and what Britain has in the past been great at, is innovation. You’ve got to live with the culture of innovation right from day one. It starts at school by asking questions, challenging this and challenging that.
“If we can get that car supersonic in 2013 we’ll have achieved a hell of a lot. We’re in the early stage of building it, so we’ve got a long way to go. But if we can do that, it will be absolutely fantastic, and that will put us in a very good position to do the big 1,000 in 2014.”