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Britain needs more engineering heroes, says Rolls-Royce chief

John Rishton claims excessive focus on bankers compared with pioneers of engineering and science is harming the economy

British society pays excessive attention to investment bankers and should hold engineers in higher regard, according to the chief executive of Rolls-Royce, in the latest warning by a captain of industry that UK manufacturing is hobbled by both a cultural and economic deficit.

John Rishton said Britain needed more engineering and science heroes akin to Brian Cox and Robert Winston – leading figures in physics and medicine respectively – to help rebalance the economy away from finance to manufacturing.

Alluding to the popularity of films such as Oliver Stone’s epoch-defining Wall Street and bestsellers including Too Big to Fail about the Lehman Brothers crash, Rishton said finance had been sucked into the cult of celebrity, leaving more worthy sectors in its slipstream.

Referring to investment bankers, the Rolls-Royce CEO said: “We raise their profiles, we make films about them, kids talk about them in the same way we talk about celebrities. Engineers, we talk about them as if they repair cars.” However, Rishton acknowledged that banking has recently been attracting more notoriety than adulation, even if it remains a well-paid profession.

Urging the UK to focus on the important work of innovators of engineering, Rishton, an economist by academic background, added: “If you go to China, engineers that are making stuff and doing things are really, really important.” Rishton said Germany also held its engineers in higher regard. He added that comments last year by Alan Sugar, that engineers do not make good business people, were unhelpful.

Rishton welcomed the government’s call for a “march of the makers” to boost manufacturing’s share of GDP from 10%, and said the process would be a “long journey” that would require a concerted education strategy and focus on apprenticeships as well as a cultural shift.

Referring to the emphasis on financial services during the Blair and Brown eras, he added: “When you have been heading in a direction for a long period of time, reversing that direction … is going to take a long period of time. In my view, this is a very long path.”

Rishton spoke as the Derby-based Rolls-Royce, whose dominant business is making engines for commercial aircraft operated by the likes of British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, reported a 4% rise in underlying revenues for last year to £11.2bn. Pre-tax profits rose by 21% to £1.1bn.

Although civil aerospace is its biggest unit, Rolls-Royce also makes ship turbines, military jet engines and turbines for power stations. Rishton said all parts of the business were performing strongly, leaving the group “blessed and cursed with choice”. Its order book is worth £62.5bn.

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