Engineers are an object lesson to the rest of us. If you want to know what’s going on in the world – the trends, the economic situation, is there honey still for tea – you can do a lot worse than to ask engineers. And our quarterly survey graphs prove it.
Here, in our two regular graphs of engineering opinion, you have the recession captured at a glance. The serene period beforehand; the sharp descent, the bottoming out; the apparent recovery of hope. Between the two graphs too, you can also see the timelag effect: in the right-hand one, we’re profiling our readers’ expectations and you can see that the storm clouds gathered and dissipated earlier. In the left-hand one, where readers look back over what they’ve been subjected to over the preceding three months, the effect is a little later.
From these charts, you could pretty precisely pinpoint the low point of this downturn to this period a year ago: the first quarter of 2009 for industry and business as a whole, with our readers seeing the effects in their own workplaces just a little later in the second quarter. Thereafter, it’s been a fairly steep upward climb back to…? Quite what we’re now at we’ll come to later.
Before that, here’s a quick explanation of what we do in these surveys, which are a bit out of the normal run of our PE Q&A surveys.
The aim of them, similar to surveys by the CBI and EEF, is to assess company health by asking our engineer-readers about their workload and what they expect in the coming months. We ask them to rate whether workload was greater, lesser or the same in the three months just gone – and we ask this for their own workplace, for the business sector in which they operate and for the business and industry of engineering as a whole. The results form the basis of the left-hand graph.
The second set of questions then asks the same readers to project themselves forward and whether they see their workload rising or falling over the coming three months: again for themselves, their sectors and for engineering as a whole. That’s the basis for the right-hand graph.
In each case, the figures on the graphs are the percentage of readers who see things getting better minus the percentage who see things getting worse: a balance that can be on each line of the graphs anywhere between +100 and -100.
So how have we been doing these past three months and what do we expect for the immediate future?
The answers are pretty encouraging, all told. With 433 responses, our readers are telling us that their own workload has been rising: there’s a positive balance here of +32 for their own workplaces, and of +12 for the sectors in which their companies or organisations operate. Joy is not universal: across engineering as a whole, readers think there has been a marginal contraction at -1.
The contrast, though, is with the results from previous quarterly surveys. The +32 for activity in their own workplaces is not historically high – survey responses regularly ran in the +40 to +50 level through the long period of decent performance up to the downturn. But it’s way above the -4 gloom of the second quarter of 2009.
And even the -1 of readers seeing continued contraction in engineering as a whole is much better than it has been: a year ago that figure hit the depths at -81.
It’s a similar shape looking forward in the right-hand graph too. Optimism about the next three months is greater now than it has been for around two years: the +23 balance of people expecting workloads across engineering to increase is the highest figure for this particular question since we started these surveys in 2002. In many cases engineering firms and bodies are starting from a low level of activity but the signs are good.
The signs are also, though, of a degree of caution. To reinforce our baseline questions we also always ask a couple of questions with a slightly longer view. Do our readers feel that the past year has been a good period for engineering and do they feel that the coming year will be a good one for the profession and the business sectors that it serves?
The trends here are clear. Engineers still think, with a balance of -24, that the past year has not been good, but that is an improving position – from -54 in September, to -36 in December to -24 now is heading in the right direction.
Looking forward, it’s the same: we reached the depths of -58 in March 2009 but were back in marginally optimistic mode by December at +2. Now it’s advanced to +6, which is limited progress and may well indicate that there are significant worries still. We ain’t out of the woods yet, but it is better.
And nor is the government out of the woods. By the time we do another one of these quarterly surveys, there will have been an election and maybe our readers will be exuding goodwill towards all persons, including ministers. But at present they’re not. Our final question of these surveys always asks which, from a range of factors, our readers regard as the single biggest threat to the future health and wealth of engineering, and “government policies” has been the top response for most of the past few surveys. This time, it’s risen from a 32% rating to 39%; competition from low-cost overseas locations has, in contrast, fallen from 29% to 24%. There’s still a fairly strong write-in element of 10% seeing continuing recession and credit crunch as the biggest problem.
But mostly, according to engineers, it’s the government. And when engineers say it, you have to take notice.