It's a family affair

Research suggests a genetic factor predisposing some families to greater engineering aptitude than others.

So why do engineers keep it in the family? S&YP tracked down three sets of parents and children who have all chosen the profession

The Scotts

Peter Scott

Engineering definitely runs in our family because my father was an engineer and that definitely influenced me. I left school when I was sixteen and did an apprenticeship with English Electric building aircraft. I then went to college to do an HND in production engineering. It was a fairly secure thing to do and I think my father was keen for me to do it for that reason. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the training but as I became more qualified and learned more about the theoretical side of the profession it interested me greatly.

I’ve loved every minute of working in engineering, it’s a brilliant profession to go into - there’s nothing in the world that moves or happens without an engineer being involved in it at some point. A lot’s changed of course and the biggest difference is that a lot of the manufacturing has gone from the UK now. My perception is that what we have these days are highly-qualified theoretical engineers and we don’t have many of the hands-on, practical engineers - the machinists, tool-makers and such - which we seemed to have in the thousands, 40 years ago.

I’m very pleased David’s become an engineer but I think it was the go-karting that really got him interested in the subject. When he was about nine he went on a go-kart on holiday and when we came back he pressured me into buying a kart, which I did and he used to race twice a month with the karts until he was 16 and he won the Kent championship. He’s since gone on to race different cars and to work in the industry.

David Scott

Go-karting was certainly important to me and until I was about 16 I wanted to be a racing driver but as I got older I realised it’s a very hard thing to achieve and it was probably a bit of a pipe dream. I always thought that if the racing didn’t happen I’d want to be an engineer. I chose my GCSEs and A-Levels around that and I think I always knew I’d follow in Dad’s footsteps. Motorsport helped me learn about the subject but it probably just directed me into a field of engineering and choosing to study aerospace engineering at Kingston, which is why I’m working where I am now.

I’m an aerodynamics test technician for Honda. It’s a hands-on job and I test lots of different parts for the cars in different configurations in the wind tunnel. Engineering these days seems to mostly be all about design. Where 20 years ago 90 per cent of the people who worked for a racing team would be hands-on, making things for the car, now 90 per cent are designers who sit at computers and everything is made very quickly on CNC machines.

If I had children then I’d hope they would want to go into engineering. There will always be a demand for engineers, so I think it’s a good career. I think it’s an interesting career too, every day seems to be different, some days everything runs smoothly but then a couple of days later something goes wrong and you have to apply the knowledge that you got from your degree to work out any problems.

The Davidsons

Ian Davidson

My older brother was an engineer and it was through him that I learned about the subject. I left school at 16 and I did an apprenticeship in electrical engineering with the National Coal Board and then I went to work for London Transport designing the signalling for the underground. I also taught electrical and electronics subjects for thirty years before I retired. My daughter Fiona and son Ian are now engineers and even though I don’t think I consciously tried to encourage them into the industry I’m pleased, because it’s a good career and they both seem to enjoy it.

I think one of the biggest reasons why engineering runs in families is because if you don’t have that contact with someone in the profession then often you have no idea of what engineering actually is. When I’ve been working in schools and I’ve asked children what they think engineering entails, most of them have said that it’s about fixing cars. When you tell them about the role and the different areas you can work in it comes as a real surprise to them.

In the years I’ve been working in the profession the most notable change I’ve seen is the way that computers have revolutionised the profession. Computers are great, but they’re not always positive. One of the things I’ve noticed is that students sometimes lose the ability to understand a question for themselves. Nowadays whatever answer a student gets on a calculator they tend to accept - they may have pushed a wrong button but they just accept it and write it down and that’s potentially a bit worrying. 

Fiona Anderson (nee Davidson)

I do think that there is a hereditary element to engineering - it seems to me that you either have a mind that works in a very technical, solution-finding way, or you don’t. I don’t think I was particularly encouraged into engineering or against going into it by my dad but I was just told about the job and there must be something in it because my brother is an engineer as well!

When I was 21 I did an HND and I later did a BSc in engineering, which I finished about three years ago. I’m now an equipment engineer for Raytheon and on a day-to-day basis it’s mainly looking after machine maintenance in a clean room environment in the construction of microchips. It is certainly an interesting place to work. I think the whole profession is something that women should consider more because there are so many different types of engineering you can do. The kind of engineering I do is not something that you need a lot of physical strength for, it’s mainly brain work.

I definitely think my dad has a point about people not knowing what engineering is and I agree that mostly it seems to have this perception that it’s about fixing things. People don’t know about the different fields of engineering that you can get involved with. I’ve got two sons and I wouldn’t push them into anything and obviously I’d support them whatever they wanted to do, but I’d be happy if either of them wanted to go into engineering.

The Johns

Trevor Johns

I’m retired now but I’ve been working in engineering my entire life. I went to grammar school and then when I left I went down the coal mines which was interesting but I didn’t think there was any future in it, so I left and did National Service in the Air Force. It was there that I studied what they called airframe engineering, which covered a multitude of different disciplines, we did hydraulics, pneumatics, structures, electrics - it went into all branches, really.

They wouldn’t do that kind of apprenticeship nowadays but I think some of the university courses which have very practical elements to them are very useful and I’d certainly recommend anyone interested in studying engineering to get a degree first, because it gives you a huge boost to your career. Emily did a degree and I think that really helped her. I’m very pleased and proud that she got into engineering, because I think there are a lot of different options for people in the profession so it sets you up for a good career.

I think the biggest change I’ve seen in the profession is that I’ve always believed engineering in the UK is a two-tiered system. On one hand there’s the engineer who does the thinking and on the other there’s the mechanic who does the work! In other countries they don’t seem to have that separation and I think there are a lot less of the mechanics in the UK these days because the manufacturing industry has been reduced so much.

Emily Johns

I don’t think my dad necessarily encouraged me to go into engineering, I think both my mum and dad left me to choose my own path and I just went with what interested me. If they did have an influence it was because I’ve always had a natural interest in maths and physics anyway. My dad worked abroad most of the time but I do remember when he was home that he helped me with my homework and he was always very good at explaining maths and physics work, so that probably helped.

I did a one year foundation degree in engineering at Southampton University and then I did pure mechanical engineering there for a year. However, I found that the lecture sizes were just too big for me and it didn’t suit my learning style, so I had a year out and went to Plymouth to do mechanical design and manufacture. That was better for me because it was a more design-based course and I liked the CAD elements and the fact that it had an industrial year with Toshiba.

I now work as a graduate mechanical engineer for Hyder Consulting. I do a lot of work with a local water company and we’re involved in the development of new water schemes but at the moment I’m mostly involved with maintenance work to improve sewage treatment works. Day-to-day I might have to come up with solutions for any problems that have occurred and that often involves an evaluation, so I go out to the site and see what’s going on. Then I come up with solutions and discuss these with the client and help put things right; it’s a really interesting job. 

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