Opinion: ‘We must shout about all that’s great in our region’, by Brendon Hayward
North East England is a vibrant place with lots to celebrate, especially in terms of cutting-edge engineering technology. Our region’s achievements in this area are both long-standing and incredibly diverse, stretching back to the days of the industrial revolution and the Victorian age of invention.
Over the decades, our local ancestors have consistently delivered world-changing engineering feats. North East engineers created the concept of the passenger railway, invented the steam turbine and incandescent light bulb, built the fastest ships and developed ground-breaking hydraulic, hydroelectric and military technology, to name but a few.
The impact of these feats, which is evident in both our landscape and our heritage, is underpinned by countless local engineers, miners, builders, & pioneers and I am proud to say this incredible level of global engineering success continues to this day.
In the last 50 years, the engineering skills in our region have diversified to suit new, developing sectors. We have become the global hub for subsea trenching vehicles, which the engineering company I am part of, Osbit, is heavily involved in today. Osbit’s Executive Chairman, Dr Tony Trapp was a key part in developing the world’s first subsea ploughs in the 1980s with PhD supervisor Dr Alan Reece and fellow student Tim Grinsted, fresh from Newcastle University’s Agricultural Engineering department.
One of these ploughs laid the first ever optical fibre transatlantic cable, which marked a huge revolution in worldwide telecommunications. Tony and the Reece family have continued to advance our region’s engineering clout across various companies and sectors, making an enormous impact in the North East’s development.
Today, the North East remains at the heart of offshore developments, particularly within the offshore wind industry, which is growing exponentially. The North East supply chain has been active in this sector since its inception and is one of the most vibrant, collaborative clusters in the renewables industry. These companies, which there are too many to name, present the North East as a one stop shop for offshore project needs. At Osbit we are very much part of that cluster, designing & building complex back-deck and subsea equipment. Our company is fully based and owned in the North East, with projects delivered by a talented, relatively young team of 87 people, 44% of whom are in their 20s.
This summer, students from across the UK, and indeed the world, are preparing to begin their university education in our region, attracted by the quality of education and, of course, the rich social scene. However, the overall picture is that most of these students aren’t sticking around. In a report published by Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) in 2017, Newcastle sat in ninth place for graduate retention with 36%, with Teesside just above, in eighth, with 38%.
Contrastingly, within Osbit, we can tell a much more positive story. In 9 years of operation, 100% of our student engineers offered a graduate role accepted it and the retention rate for 2018 was 92%. We actively strive to employ graduates and 42% of our engineering workforce joined us immediately after graduating. However, like many other local engineering businesses, we still seek new talent to support the development of our company.
In fact, to feed the growth required in our engineering economy, the North East must continue to attract and retain more talented graduates. Our region employs over 8,000 people in the offshore energy sector, and, to enable further development, there is a real need for more skilled people in both technical and non-technical roles. Osbit’s growth is a good example for verifying this need; we have increased our headcount by a staggering 190% in five years.
Many people ask how we achieve these figures and the answer is actually quite simple. I believe the key component to attracting and retaining talented students is centred around culture. To stay here, people need to feel part of something exciting, challenging and genuinely meaningful, with access to real progression.
Culture can mean many things to many people. To me, as an employer, it means preserving a supportive environment full of exciting opportunities for ownership & personal development and positively changing the world, in our own small way. In terms of our region, culture is about sharing knowledge, consistently engaging with our local universities and providing valuable, hands-on learning opportunities for our students.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, culture is about storytelling. In terms of North East engineering, we have a fantastic tale to tell here, a story rooted in world-first machinery and ingenious inventions, flowing through our region’s lineage, as well as through our waters. We need to shout this story from the rooftops and inspire students into penning the next chapter. Together we can drive the global offshore wind industry forward through ambition, innovation and technical leadership. Choose the North East, engineering is in our blood!
N.B. This piece was published in The Journal newspaper on Thursday July 18th 2019.