A New Age of Heroes: Philip Greenish CBE

Posted on 31 Oct 2013 by The Manufacturer

Philip Greenish CBE, CEO of the Royal Academy of Engineering talks about the transformed value of engineering in the last decade and his vision to make heroic engineers household names.

In Britain ten years ago, Philip Greenish, like many reading this magazine, harboured a love that almost dared not speak its name. If mentioned in the hallways of power, it would cause people to shuffle their feet uncomfortably and cough to cover awkward silences.

Philip Greenish loves engineering and has a passion for the brilliance of his fellows in the profession.

Of course, with a naval background, Mr Greenish fared better than some engineers a decade ago – at least he wasn’t a manufacturer.

“If engineering in general was viewed as somewhat dysfunctional, manufacturing certainly was not spoken about in polite company ten years ago,” he says as he talks about the changes he has seen since becoming CEO of the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) in 2003.

“The landscape has transformed,” he sums up. “When I came to the Academy, engineering was viewed by outsiders as a declining profession. We were not listened to in Whitehall. Our advice on matters of public policy was never sought out.

Philip Greenish’s definition of engineering

“The art and science of changing the material world for human benefit.”

“Now, government is constantly coming to us and seeking out experts from our fellowship to advise on critical matters of energy, health and environmental policy, for example.”

How has thins change come about?

“The financial crisis helped to spur a change of perspective. There is now an overt recognition that we need to reinvigorate our productive economy, that we have to make our way through hard graft and making things.”

It’s now an accepted truth in government that engineering capability is central to this says Greenish who is broadly positive about the efforts being made to rebalance the economy – including bridging skills gaps.

The Royal Academy of Engineering

There are 36 professional engineering institutions in the UK. Not to mention a gamut of additional trade bodies, lobby groups, industry consortia and other sector support organisations.

In this crowded landscape, does the Royal Academy have a distinct role? Or could it be included in a broad consolidation of industrial support organisations to achieve a more navigable landscape for employers?

Greenish thinks not.

“There is a role for everyone. The professional institutions engage with government and lobby to raise the profile of engineering in a similar way to the Academy. It is right and proper that their members want to have a voice in these matters.”

But in the case of the Royal Academy, its engagement with government comes from a very different perspective – one that lends it unique power Greenish argues.

“Whereas professional institutions and trade bodies engage with government as part of a service they offer to their members, for us it is quite the contrary. The Royal Academy does not exist for the benefit of its fellows,” he explains.

“It is a great honour to be asked to become a fellow. But when that invitation is extended, we make clear that the nominee is invited to serve.

“Being a fellow is a status which carries few perks. Fellows pay a small membership fee for the privilege of having me, or a member of our excellent staff here, call up and say we have a job for them. They won’t get remunerated and it’ll likely be hard work, but its part and parcel of being a fellow of the UK’s national academy of engineering. It’s about making a contribution to society.”

As a long term player in the evolution of industrial strategy, Greenish even-handedly recognises that work on rehabilitating study of STEM subjects began many parliaments ago. “You can see the roots of many of the initiatives to promote apprenticeships, STEM skills and vocational training for business and industry in the work of Lord Sainsbury ten years back,” he says.

But RAEng’s CEO is not complacent.

A doubling of apprenticeships and increasing uptake of STEM subjects at A Level does not mean that a job has been done on skills development for industry. “We welcome the increase in apprenticeship numbers, particularly now that there has been a realisation that it is not just a numbers game, but also about ensuring quality skills development.

“But there are still too many schools that just don’t get it when we go in and talk about the value of engineering and manufacturing and the prospects they offer. In particular, there are still far too many schools encouraging young women to go into ‘traditional’ careers which are, frankly, low value to them.”

Creator and coordinator

As you would expect for an organisation which exists to prove the value of engineering to society, RAEng runs a wide range of initiatives to tackles skills gaps and alter outdated perceptions of the industry’s in which engineering skills are applied.

Education for Engineering or E4E is the central strand to this remit, but there are other programmes which focus on developing design enthusiasm and entrepreneurialism, such as the Ingenious programme.

RAEng also partners with relevant subject associations to influence the development of curricula for STEM and related subjects at school.

It recently hosted a workshop with the Design and Technology Association to formulate non-statutory guidance for D&T teachers delivering the new programme of study – this includes challenging concepts for contextualisation and teaching the basics of embedded electronics and user centred design at key stages 1-3.

The Academy is also supporting the launch of a new programme to encourage the professional development of women in industry – thereby increasing the number of senior female role models and attracting more young women to follow in their footsteps.

The first Everywoman Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering Academy event takes place this month.

RAEng’s passionate and proactive approach to developing schemes that address the skills and image problems of engineering in its many different environments is commendable.

But, in a world where every skills council, trade body, LEP and more are spouting an initiative a minute, wouldn’t it be more helpful for RAEng to use its fairly unique position (see box) to act as a coordinating and rationalising hub for the UK’s crowded landscape of industry skills programmes?

“Your question is very fair,” responds Greenish. “We and others have tried many ways over the years to consolidate activities to get more impact.

Currently, what we get is the sum of many, many parts – at best. We need to find a way of amplifying the input to create a much more substantial output.”


Philip Greenish CBE: Biography in Brief

1969: Joined the Royal Navy

1972: Graduated from Durham University with a degree in Engineering Science

1974-88: Served as a frontline engineer at sea

1994: Appointed military assistant to the chief of defence procurement at the Ministry of Defence

1997: Appointed director of operational requirements, sea systems, MoD

1999: Appointed rear admiral with responsibility for engineering, personnel and logistic support for the Royal Navy and Royal Marines.

2003: Retired from naval service, received CBE and became CEO of the Royal Academy of Engineering

Philip Greenish also holds a wide range of non-executive positions and trusteeships. He is a Council Member of Southampton University, a trustee of EngineeringUK, the Science Media Centre and the Daphne Jackson Trust. Philip also recently joined the editorial advisory board of The Manufacturer magazine.

Moving goalposts

However, this is easier said than done, not least because the discipline RAEng is trying to represent is continuously morphing and advancing. In short, Greenish says he, and the Academy has its work cut out in keeping up with new applications for engineering and hunting down leaders in new fields before it begins thinking about how to encourage the development of a skills base for that field.

“We carefully aim to represent the whole spectrum of engineering,” explains Greenish. “But while this was quite easy twenty years ago, now it is less easy to define. It’s hard to find new fellows to represent emerging disciplines and break new ground with them.

“Take synthetic biology. This is a core new engineering discipline and there a small number of very significant engineers working on synthetic biology in this country. The number is rapidly growing and it is an area with a very important future,” enthuses Greenish.

We can be heroes

The CEO’s fascination with all kinds of engineering applications is palpable, but this passion leads to frustration when talking about the recognition individual engineers get in the UK.

For while Greenish is positive about the appreciation of the value of engineering by government, he is adamant that individual engineers behind advances in living standards, environmental sustainability, infrastructure and communications technology should benefit from more celebrity.

“We have heroic engineers working in the UK, but they are not household names.”

Greenish envies the US its celebration of the engineers who have founded mega corporations. “Look at Google. This is an engineering business. It is run by engineers who are familiar names with the public in the US. Take Bill Gates. I hold him in the highest respect and, whatever you think of his corporation, it cannot be denied that he is a heroic engineer of the modern age.”

In the UK there are perhaps heroic engineering firms says Greenish. But the architects behind them are not properly lauded.

“We are going to change this,” he states, flatly ambitious.

Find out more about the Royal Academy of Engineering here.