David Bowen: Engineering the web

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Engineering companies have been complaining this week. The British say they have to hire from Germany; the Germans say they can’t find enough qualified people. There is, it seems, a worldwide shortage of youngsters prepared to study engineering. Why don’t companies stop complaining and start campaigning? They have websites; teenagers use websites. Here surely is an opportunity to excite, engage, and persuade them to shun tourism studies in favour of engineering.

There is in fact a fair amount of relevant material on corporate websites, but much is either hidden or unfocused. The problem, it seems to me, is that the most useful efforts are either run by people who have little clout within the company – certainly not enough to get a plug on the home page. Or they are driven by marketing, which means no one has noticed they could easily be refocused to stir of young souls.

BAE Systems comes in the first category. Its home page (www.baesystems.com) had a news story this week about the Young Female Engineer of the Year, who works for the group. This is great except that there is no way for inspired youngsters to follow up – and certainly no link to the excellent education site (www.baesystemseducationprogramme.com) that is designed to tell them what they could be doing. It includes a Restricted Area (‘no adults allowed’) which uses a bank of television screens and commentary by a boy to show videos that mix excitement (tanks being driven fast) with information (tank designers explaining what they do). The Mug Shot gallery shows children at schools the company has visited – linking the physical with the online world. And so on. Good stuff, hidden away.

Rolls-Royce (www.rolls-royce.com) has a rather less impressive education section, but at least it is linked from the home page. Best bit is the Flash-powered Journey through a Jet Engine, which shows the unpleasant experience air goes through as it is sucked in, heated up and expelled. But this is a relatively modest bit of educational fun amid rather a lot of worthiness.

These are the only two pieces of corporate content I found specifically aimed at young people. There must be more, but I could not find them either by looking around sites or by searching on Google. In truth I would not have found the BAE Systems site had I not known about it before – so the message here is, if you’ve got it, flaunt it. Which, in the case of websites, means promoting it on the home page.

If you do not have any specially-prepared material, what can you do to lure youngsters into engineering? I suggest looking around for anything you do have that might generate the sort of excitement you need, and be aware how it can be adapted and promoted.

ThyssenKrupp (www.thyssenkrupp.com) has just the job – a Flash-powered minisite called Discover the World of ThyssenKrupp. With its electronic soundtrack and nice pictures (mostly of children), it is slick, interesting and dare I say it, cool. Mega yachts have an obvious appeal, but even high speed escalators and clever coatings for cars comes across as intriguing. The site is, I imagine, driven by marketing – but it does have Q&A sections from people who work on the areas covered. All it needs is better promotion (no permanent link on the home page, though it does get intermittent plugs), and better links to material aimed specifically at youngsters. This week ThyssenKrupp has been promoting the Ideas Park, an event in Hanover where young people can ‘meet scientists, engineers and users and share their enthusiasm for new ideas’. If the people who produce the Discover site work with the people who do the Ideas Park, a permanent and effective bit of online promotion for engineering could surely be constructed. I wonder if such a thing could happen.

Other German sites also have material that could with a little work, do the trick. Siemens (www.siemens.com) uses a magazine format to promote content on its home page – some, such as Technology behind the World Cup, is a natural to intrigue the youngster. Again it is marketing content, but could surely be linked to information about the people who design football stadiums? DaimlerChrysler (www.daimlerchrysler.com) has a standing Innovation link which leads to lots of material on technology – on accident-free driving, energy for the future, and more. I am not sure if this comes from the marketing or research departments; but again, with tweaking, could work well as a commercial for the wonderful world of engineering.

An approach that almost works, though more by luck than judgment, is General Electric’s. Its site (www.ge.com) has a carefully managed home page that constantly appeals for us to learn about Ecomagination, a strange hybrid word that does however have rather a good site of its own (http://ge.ecomagination.com). Here you can learn about another hybrid – a train that reuses the energy generated during braking (enough to power 160 households for a year, apparently). Or about smart dishwashers; or desalination plants; or new aircraft engines. In each case the point is that environmentally-sound answers are being found to engineering problems – a challenge with which many young people would, I am sure, love to be involved.

GE has an intriguing home page, and it has exciting content for kids. But no one seems to be looking at the potential these have to fill up the engineering pipeline. A For Students link – also on the home page – leads to practical but boring Q&As, designed to reduce the need to field annoying emails rather than stir the young mind. ‘Where can I find a copy of financial statements?’ might be the question students most frequently ask. But what about adding ‘Where can I see what GE engineers do?’, and inserting a link to the Ecomagination site. All it takes is a little of the group’s own favourite word, imagination, and of course the ability to get different departments to talk to each other. That, of course, is likely to be the difficult bit.

David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co (www.bowencraggs.com). dbowen@bowencraggs.com.

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