Last week, the Guardian published a piece by Kel Fidler, the former chairman of the Engineering Council and former vice-chancellor of Northumbria University, titled “We won’t get more engineering students by lowering tuition fees.” In this article, Mr. Fidler recaps that the UK has a shortage of engineers, and that the engineering profession is bad at explaining to society exactly what it does.
Lord Browne, chairman of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering: “People think they know what engineering is but the evidence is they don’t – and in the UK the evidence is that we are very, very bad at telling them.”
He claims that engineering needs a makeover, “one that reveals its excitement and true value to society.” He explains that lowering tuition fees and performing STEM outreach has failed to boost enrolment. He further details the confusion surrounding what exactly it means to be an engineer, as Lord Brown states above, and calls for a “a sustained marketing campaign to sell engineering to the public through the media and product branding.” And who should lead this marketing campaign? Why a task force of appointed, motivated individuals from the “36 professional engineering institutions and many other bodies including The Royal Academy of Engineering, EngineeringUK, Womens’ Engineering Society, Engineering Council, Engineering Professors’ Council and so on…” I believe XKCD covered this already.
As a Canadian-educated engineer now working in the UK, I both agree and disagree with Ken’s arguments in favour of an engineering makeover. It sure needs one but the one it needs in the UK is not the one he’s proposing.
A long time ago (okay, maybe not that long ago) back in my undergraduate years, it was common to encounter ERTW scrawled randomly or chanted during events – Engineers Rule the World. One non-engineering colleague of mine used to laugh at such grandstanding, instead describing engineers as the “janitors of society.” He believed that engineers made everything work behind the scenes and that the best engineering was largely invisible. There’s even a podcast on this phenomenon. It’s tough to celebrate and market a profession that’s typically invisible. It’s even harder when there are 36 professional engineering groups in a single country, without a single unifying voice. It’s impossible when anyone can call themselves an engineer. The UK needs to reclaim the title of engineer by placing it under a protected status and allow only accredited individuals to use it, like the Canadian and German systems. These licensing bodies can become the unified, specialization-agnostic voice of engineering for the media, separating themselves from the 36 content-specific engineering institutions. This will clear up what is means to practice engineering within the country and provide a unified source of information for the media.
Not all engineering is exciting, so we need to stop pretending it is. Most of it is hard work. A lot of it is boring paperwork. And you’re probably going to encounter failure on a daily basis. So why lie to the public? Engineering is going to appeal to a particular type of individual who is absolutely thrilled by applying scientific and mathematical principles to solve problems and isn’t afraid of failure, and we need to encourage individuals from a young age that this field is something worth pursuing. But we need to market ACTUAL engineering to the youth.
Dr Graham Bray, Beacon Academy’s Stem director, commented on an externally-organised engineering day for 60 year 9 students noting “the projects were to be built essentially from scrap – bits of dowel, paper cups, masking tape, etc. The majority of projects didn’t work, and it was frustrating to see the final products. Is this the image that we want our students to have of engineers – that they produce stuff from scrap that doesn’t actually work?”
I hope Dr Bray recognizes that most of the actual design work I’ve performed to date has started with scraps and didn’t work right the first time. Or the second or third time. It was an iterative process where I learned from my mistakes, revised my design, and tried again. If we’re giving kids the impression that engineering is something done in a day and works right the first time, no wonder the UK has enrolment problems. You’re marketing a profession that doesn’t exist.
Lastly, we need to take a good look at engineering culture. Undergraduate engineering culture at my alma mater was male-dominated and sexist despite being headed up by a female dean, with the highest female enrolment in the country at the time. With the awareness that the growing feminism movement has brought forth, combined with major media events covering inappropriate chants, I sincerely hope half of the chants I participated in have fallen off for being overwhelming distasteful. I can’t speak to experiences in the UK but I can’t imagine things are too different. It’s no wonder women didn’t want to become engineers – I helped perpetuate a culture that was toxic to an entire gender.
So, at least in the UK, engineering needs to fix itself on a professional level by protecting the title, on a STEM outreach level by ensuring that we’re marketing a career that actually exists, and then we need to turn the lens on ourselves to make sure that we’re not perpetuating a discriminatory culture.