Stop the world - I want to get off

If you really want to raise the profile of engineering, leave the profession, argues Stephen Blake.

The low status of engineers in the UK is much lamented and much discussed in the pages of this magazine and many others up and down the land. You, the readers (or at least a significant proportion of you) are engineers; you no doubt wish to see engineering given the status and respect that a profession of such technical rigour and huge public responsibility warrants.

So you aim to carve out an engineering career and possibly even engage in some public relations activities... right? But maybe walking straight out of university and into an engineering job actually does very little to elevate the status of engineers; maybe some of you should consider working in other professions such as the law, finance or politics, for it is perhaps these professions above all others that have the influence required to put engineering where it belongs.

Many engineers talk (and even shout) about this issue among themselves with great regularity and have done so for many years. That is, after all, what I am doing here! But to my mind, whingeing to each other will not get us anywhere: have we seen any benefit from it so far?

There are also many initiatives that aim to educate children and other members of the public in what engineers do. These, too, have been around for many years but, while I happen to believe that educating the public on the basics of engineering is a positive move, when it comes to generating respect for the engineering profession what does talking to Mrs Bates down the road, or little Jonny at the local school, actually do? The answer, I suspect, is very little: the number of UK engineering graduates has grown by only 2% in the last five years* – and bear in mind that degree courses will compete for a falling number of entrants over the next few years, reflecting the decline in birth rates nearly two decades ago.

Politicians (often with non-technical backgrounds) offer sound-bites and politically motivated comments about the importance of science and engineering to the UK economy. In my view, these statements are almost always backed up with half-hearted actions that have little or no effect; do we see a trend towards a more engineering-led or technology-based economy in the UK? Try putting that question to anyone worried about their job at GM Vauxhall at the moment.

It is clear to me that current strategies are not working. Maintaining the status quo will not achieve anything: history proves this, and realising that is key to us making progress towards a more high-status future, if, indeed, that is what we want.

So, what to do?

The future of engineering can be greatly enhanced by making progress in two areas: increasing the number of engineering graduates seeking employment in high-earning professions; and providing a proper policy environment that allows engineering to flourish.

I talk often to legal and financial professionals about recruitment and one thing has become very obvious: engineering graduates are already highly prized by both sectors. They have a huge range of the skills required by any employer and are often selected over candidates with MBAs and humanities-based degrees. The problem is that there are not enough of them willing to take roles outside engineering. If there were, and humanities graduates began to lose out to engineering graduates in filling these posts, then we would see an impact on the number of students studying engineering disciplines.

The inescapable fact is that career prospects, and not a deep seated love of the subject, drive most university course selections. At the moment, when prospective students select their degree courses, they choose economics, business and law in droves. Yet this is not because they long to study these topics, it is because they can earn great sums in the careers that they perceive are opened up by them. If it became clear that a science or engineering degree offered a competitive advantage then they would undoubtedly study those: I know I would!

In terms of policy, the sad fact is that barely any of our elected representatives have a science or engineering-based degree. Apart from the fact that often they lack problem-solving skills and are perhaps not ideally equipped to deal with the issues facing the nation (that is altogether another topic!), this results in a law and policy-making body that neither grasps the issues facing engineering, nor really cares. Beyond winning them votes, are politicians with a non-technical background really bothered about the status of engineers? History suggests not. Contrast that with what you might do given the reins of power... the difference should be obvious.

Currently, other professions have the ear of Parliament: it understands their language. By peopling Parliament with those who speak their language, engineers can start to whisper in that ear and be understood.

By offering other professions the Trojan horse of engineering graduates to fill their vacant positions, the profession will begin to achieve the status it so deserves. Numbers of graduates would increase and the policy decisions required to help the profession back onto its feet could be made by informed individuals with the conviction to follow through, because it matters to them.

In the wider professional world we and our skills are greatly in demand. By embracing that demand you may not only discover a rewarding career that you had not before considered, but you may also be helping out those friends that you leave behind.

Further information can be found regarding Engineering UK 2008,  on the Engineering and Technology Board website.

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