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Engineering must find its voice

Even the staunchest readers of Engineer might be surprised to know that UK engineering businesses turned over some £1.06 trillion in the year ending March 2011. That’s three times the size of the retail sector or 23.9% of the turnover of all UK enterprises. Now I admit I’m using engineering in its broadest sense but for the purpose of my discussion a more detailed definition isn’t too relevant.

The engineering sector employs 5.4 million people across 542,440 companies. Some are world leading and highly innovative, others form the bedrock of a broad manufacturing base. Together they are a crucial part of our economy and society. Yet their amazing achievements in safer and faster travel, communications, construction, health care, infrastructure, power generation and even sport seem to be taken for granted by our voracious consumer society.

If you were to ask the man or woman in the street, How many UK engineering businesses you can name? – you’d be lucky if they knew two or three

Over the past 50 years engineering in the UK has suffered a dramatic fall from consciousness of the mass public. A large proportion of the population does not appreciate its criticality, takes its contribution for granted and yet is quick to blame when things ‘go wrong’.

If you were to ask the man or woman in the street, How many UK engineering businesses you can name? – you’d be lucky if they knew two or three. Likewise, how many present day engineers can you name? You might be quoted James Dyson and there it would stop. I can guarantee they would know far more chefs.

Ask similar questions in Germany and by contrast there would be no problem in identifying engineering businesses. Germany has dozens of high profile Engineering companies, many of them global brands: VW, Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Porsche, Bosch, Rowenta, Miele, Siemens, MAN, Bayer, Airbus, Krone, Linde, Wolf, to name but a few.

So what’s going wrong here? Well Britain’s engineering is somewhat different to Germany’s. We have very few high profile names, Rolls-Royce JCB Jaguar Land Rover? Instead much of our engineering is high-tech, very specialized, often part of a supply chain. Most are business to business organisations - what they do, or make, lies well outside the day to day experiences of the vast majority of us. The upshot is that these companies have never developed the ability to communicate what they do in simple terms to a general public. They don’t think they have to; it’s not part of their business. The end result is that 99% of the public, and I include politicians and journalists, can’t understand what the majority of our engineering businesses do.


The 2012 Olympics were a missed opportunity to showcase UK engineering expertise

This impasse has created an indifference on the part of editors, TV producers and the media in general, who are the critical link in giving engineering a BIG voice and so the negative spiral is perpetuated. And it’s been like that for years.

For example, Princess Anne recently announced the winners of the very first Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. The £1 million Prize is to be awarded annually to the individual or team judged to have made a significant contribution to engineering globally. The premier award went to Louis Pouzin, Robert Kahn, Vint Cerf, Tim Berners Lee and Marc Andeessen for their ground-breaking work, starting in the 70s, which led to the internet and the web. The impact of their work is immense. Sadly the announcement of the winners was given scant coverage in the papers and marginalised on the TV news.

Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering winner announcement.

The QE prize for engineering - awarded to the inventors of the internet - received depressingly little media coverage

Contrast that with the publicity, debate and coverage that surrounds the Turner Art and Man Booker Literary prizes - which are for tiny sums in comparison. Or the razzmatazz of The Baftas and Brit awards.

A further example of hidden achievements of engineering can be found in the delivery of the Olympic Park for London 2012. Congratulations for this were heaped on the Olympic Organising Committee, the government ministers, the ceremony directors, and the Mayor of London. The men and women who truly delivered these facilities were hardly mentioned.

Such missed opportunities to celebrate engineering are many, but they also offer the opportunity for change. I’m not suggesting engineers suddenly strive for celebrity status and the limelight; by their nature that is not in their character. What I am advocating is that the entire engineering community finds its voice and communicates in a much more accessible manner to a lay audience.

“Why should the engineering community bother?” you might say. “If that’s the public perception so be it”

Engineering needs to tap into the psyche of the student for theirs are the years of optimism and idealism.

Well firstly it’s a matter of giving all engineers a feeling that their contribution to society is being recognized, but more importantly it’s our future. Having been out of favour with successive governments for years there is now a growing realisation, undoubtedly prompted by the demise of the financial sector, that engineering, and in particular high tech engineering, may, after all be the route for growth and financial stability.

But if we are to deliver on this Britain needs at least 100,000 engineering graduates every year. Currently there is a shortfall of 42%. And of those who do graduate in engineering more than a quarter choose occupations outside science engineering and technology seduced by the image of other walks of life.

Add in the fact that only one in 10 of our engineers are female, the lowest in Europe and the challenge facing our engineering sector as it seeks to tap into the skills pool becomes truly apparent.

Without a workforce equipped with the skills the economy needs, Britain cannot trade out of recession and will remain burdened by enormous debt for years to come. Already, engineering companies are having to turn away new business, business that is vital to economic growth, due to lack of skilled staff.

It’s time for Engineering Companies to find their voice and make their subject tangible, exciting and meaningful to the ‘everyman’.

Engineering UK’s initiative to boost science in schools has been a bold first step but to truly attract students into the professions we need to appreciate the motivating factors in making career choices. Engineering needs to tap into the psyche of the student for theirs are the years of optimism and idealism.

Engineering, whatever the sector, needs to promote its criticality to the way we live and explain its social value. What would life be like if that engineering didn’t exist?

As Sir Christopher Snowden puts it “ If we don’t communicate well as a community, how can we expect the general public to understand the value of what we add to society?”

It’s time for Engineering Companies to find their voice and make their subject tangible, exciting and meaningful to the ‘everyman’. To throw off the inward looking, grey image and show that their careers embrace technology, are challenging, socially important, fun and rewarding both financially and intellectually.


Barrie Weaver - Biog

For over 30 years Barrie Weaver’s award winning team have designed products and communications for a hugely diverse range of companies; from start-ups  to blue-chip in 14 countries.  With projects ranging from lawnmowers  to aircraft interiors, medical equipment to computers, telephones to ion implanters he has gained a rare insight into a many aspects of engineering and the manner in which companies present themselves.  

Readers' comments (4)

  • I am lapsed Chartered Engineer, pursued an early career and was a works engineering director with Glaxo before pursing a career in organisation development in manufacturing which is my true love.
    I agree with your comments. I was really proud to be an engineer but frustrated and dismayed by the perception and status we held not only in our own companies but society at large.
    We are guilty of not communicating our value and worth, and probably not making a fuss, although chuntering into our flasks of coffee. The result the profession has been left behind to other professions in the manufacturing arena. I am thinking marketing, purchasing and finance who seem to have carved out better returns and taken a more influential role at the table!
    I am now involved in coaching and development, and have a set of psychometric badges to add to the fantastic skill set I developed as an engineer, and engineers need to think how they might influence and communicate the worth and value of the profession, getting out of the detail and start talking possibility, the interconnections, and visions for better, faster, cheaper, stronger and connected ( I could go on....).
    Engineers need to learn a new skill set and behaviours. Influence and inspiration?

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  • Ian's comments reminded me about a favorite joke:

    Q. When talking to an engineer, how can you tell an extroverted one from an introverted one?

    A. An extroverted engineer will look at your shoes rather than their own when talking to you!

    It's true that a lot of ancillary functions have taken away the power of the core functions in manufacturing. Somebody must do the real work, that's one reason most engineers will avoid the overhead and more often than not useless functions. Is it possible that engineers do not have the same need to compensate through a lot of attention seeking and self-promotion the lack of substance, social and economic benefit of one's activity?

    One way to find our voice is for engineers to take over those functions, especially a the decision level and manage manufacturing with the same competence, impactfulness and passion as they manage their tangible products. As for fun, here is some:

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  • I have worked in marketing management for numerous engineering related businesses and have seen some astonishing innovations. It is tempting to say that the public is not interested but how can we say that if they are not aware of engineering achievements. There are a handful of engineering programmes on the TV and myself and my family savour them however they are few and far between. We live in a rapidly changing world where people seem more interested in celebrity or the latest gadget than real engineering achievements. So, we recognise the problem but how does the sector make engineering advancements better known and more visible?
    Personally I think consumer engagement is the answer and this needs to begin in the community and in school. Perhaps a young engineers working group/academy could be set up nationwide by engineers from across a multiple disciplines, with the aim of educating and involving youngsters in tomorrows world and modernising the image. This could include creating affinities with consumer brands i.e. instead of Modern Warfare games maybe they could develop Modern World, where the task was to design and build a solution to a problem and submit it online for prizes etc. Perhaps the Group could create an engineering challenge kit for introduction into the school curriculum for 11-18 year olds?
    All of these things take time and dedication, but if one representative from all engineering sectors could contribute just one day a year of their time, change would happen and maybe 20 years from now engineering will be the coolest profession in the world!

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  • The solution is marketing and publicity. People are enthralled with the products of engineering they just don't associate them with engineering and invention.

    I believe the perception of engineers is still seen as those who operate dirty steam locomotives. Worst of all, is the perception of inventors illustrated in 'Back to the future', or the old Q in James Bond. New images are required that are cool and desirable. Tony Stark of the Iron Man films is a good example. When an association can be formed with hero characters and engineering, Youngsters will want to be in a cool profession.

    As we need more engineers and inventors, would it not be a good idea for the engineering institutes and organisations to use this approach in their marketing?

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