Tuesday, 30 September 2014
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A winning idea for engineering

Inspiring engineers of the future is a topic on many peoples’ minds at the moment. The engineering community, of course, has been talking about how to encourage more young people to enter the profession for a long time.

But now there is an economic imperative, the government is also getting into the debate and has suggested creating an international Nobel Prize-style award based in the UK to ‘help to create the excitement that would help give British manufacturing a brighter future’.

Although few details of the prize have been announced, it’s certainly welcome to hear politicians talking about the importance of young people aspiring to be great engineers.

And the award itself really could raise the profile of engineering and highlight the many achievements for which engineers are responsible. Indeed, one wonders why Alfred Nobel didn’t create such a prize in his original endowment. He was, himself, an engineer, the holder of 355 patents and the inventor of dynamite.

The problem is that it’s very difficult to manufacture the kind of prestige and publicity that the Nobel Foundation enjoys. There are already a number of prizes for engineering, not least The Engineer’s own Technology & Innovation Awards, that are well respected within the industry but largely unknown outside of it.

The government will have to plan very carefully if it wants its grand idea to become seen by the wider world as more than another trade event. It says it is working with private sector firms to create an endowment that will fund the prize. Too much corporate involvement could certainly damage its credibility, although the likes of the Man Booker prize show private sponsorship can work.

You could do what the Swedish central bank did and persuade the Nobel Foundation to take over administration of its economics prize, which wasn’t included in the original awards. But then it would be held in Sweden, not Britain.

This raises another question: how successful would an international prize be in raising the profile of British engineering? The UK still has many fantastic engineers and inventors, and our scientific papers are the second most cited in the world. But when it comes to industrial output, in many sectors we’re sadly no longer the global leaders we once were.

If the prize rewarded discoveries and inventions by individuals then we’d be as successful as we are with the existing Nobels. If the award went to companies and products then we might find it much more difficult to compete.

Of course, it would be horribly cynical to avoid creating a prize just because Britain wouldn’t win it, or skew the winning criteria to give ourselves an advantage. It certainly wouldn’t help the award’s reputation.

Seeing the world’s greatest engineers gather in Britain, the birthplace of the industrial revolution, would still have an inspiring affect on young people to go out and achieve great things themselves.

Still, if the aim of the idea is to promote British manufacturing, it might be pretty demoralising if UK companies were passed over again and again. Then again, it might help motivate industry and government into stronger action for developing the sector.

An award like this isn’t going to be easy to get right. But we shouldn’t let the challenge stop us from bringing the idea to life. The rewards could be much more than a trophy on the mantelpiece.


Readers' comments (9)

  • While I, and most other engineers welcome the promotion of engineering, and showing the public what we do, i think we have to tread carefully. Such events may promote engineering in the wrong way with people vying for prizes rather than engineering excellence and innovation. This often means other engineering innovation is ignored, for such an event to be successful, this scenario needs avoiding.

    My thoughts are to have a wide range of catagories broken down by sector, with this a large number of ideas can be publicly seen. I would also advocate breaking down into ages, this could encourage the youngsters at school to participate and enter engineering.

    Money is a significant factor, one winning idea may make a lot of money, and keep a number of people in work. One hundred lesser, but good ideas will generate more revenue and keep far more people in work.
    It is this consideration, both ideas, financial, and job creation and security which need encouragement.

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  • Why does everyone harp on with this idea about the need to inspire and excite young people to encourage them to want an engineering career? Do the banks tell them how exciting and inspirational a banking career will be? No, they don't. They tell them what salary they can expect, and the clever young things run all the way to the banks clutching their CV's. But we engineers can't do that, because the clever young things would snigger into their handkerchiefs at our lousy salaries and go laughing all the way to the bank! I certainly would not try to inspire anyone to come and "enjoy" the lifestyle that I lead. My daughter is interested in electronics and in how and why things work, but I hope that she never expresses an interest in becoming an engineer. She would certainly have an interesting job, but with insufficient money to enjoy it.

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  • I think that there are many reasons why young people don’t want to enter the engineering profession, and while this post is discussing the merits of a Nobel style short cut to encourage them, I suggest that it would be more fruitful to explore one other reason that is not often considered. To many young (and not so young) people engineering is a profession where it is seen that they will end up as (or at least designing) the proverbial ‘Cog in the Machine’. We need to face the fact that for many people who are engineers this IS what engineering is about, especially when we have complex ‘systems’ based products, from spacecraft, to aircraft, cars, software and even training shoes. Most people who enter the profession will end up in these positions, and it is essential that they do, they are themselves essential and we know that is and must be the case. Architecture is similar (most architects end up being ‘CAD monkeys’ or doing uninspiring detailing work). Architecture does have the advantage of a few more high profile people such as Lords Rogers & Foster – but for engineering to try to emulate that profession by finding a few more Dysons, Brunels or Stephensons (or perhaps raising the profile of the chief engineer of Jaguar Land Rover) and having the equivalent of the Stirling prize isn’t the solution either.

    We have to look outside Engineering and realize that we live in a society which since the 1960s (and I’m not knocking the 60s as such) has come to celebrate the individual over the teams of ‘Cogs’ who actually did design, manufacture and deliver the inspiring engineering projects such as the Apollo project and Concorde, the development of nuclear power, as well as the less glamorous train and car industries.

    Whilst it is easy to perhaps sneer at young people for following and watching programs such as the X-factor (rather than the X-Prize), to have a slight chance of elevating themselves out of the ‘social mass’, we should recognize that across at least western society as a whole, and UK society in particular, we as professionals attempt to flatter ourselves – that we as an individual or small group - via our professions- can raise and distinguish ourselves from our mass of fellow citizens, whether it be creatively – via say the creative media and fashion industries – or morally by working on say sustainable engineering projects (and even for some – but not all- simply a high salary) . In a more atomized society the importance of identity becomes inflated.

    If there is a way to reverse this – and there may be many, one partial solution would be to demand real investment for grand projects for say manned spaceflight, high speed trains etc. where identification with being an engineer, because large teams of engineers ‘get things done’ may rightly be elevated. But the real point here is to start to recognise that we as engineers need to have a more sophisticated and deeper understanding of wider and underlying social trends before we support the next short cut initiative and try to attract young people by making the profession appear more flattering than it is.

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  • I suspect that one of the most important thing about this idea is to select a name that will generate respect for engineering among the general public. Brian Cox seems well able to do that for physics, and we need a similar figurehead. While Trevor Bayliss and James Dyson are well respected in the profession, I am not sure that clockwork radios and vacuum cleaners are going to generate enthusiasm among the young, so their names would not be ideal. Perhaps a name linked to creativity rather than a person would be better.
    The second thing that needs to be done is to remove the ability of a sewer cleaner to called an engineer - yes, it happened on the BBC! Other countries have been able to make it a legal requirement for Engineers to be professionally qualified. Why can it not be done here? In correspondence with Michael Gove I have learned that he is sympathetic to this view. How about discussing the idea of a prize with him? Getting support from a senior minister with responsibility for education would be a good start.
    Whatever is done, it must be possible for the media in all its guises to see engineering as a 'sexy' profession. This may be the most difficult thing to achieve in the Murdoch era!

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  • While I totally agree with Mark Gilbert, until respect for the profession is generated among the public, salaries will remain lousy. Yes, mine was even though my job was absolutely vital to the defence of this country. I went into electronics because my parents told me it was the 'coming thing' in the late 1950s.

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  • Re: The Engineer’s own Technology & Innovation Awards: a terrific idea, however the focus of many large companies is so narrowly fixated on profit now that innovation from staff is just ignored. It’s such a pity because recognition is a great motivator and the resource of staff enthusiasm is just left untapped.

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  • Re: Anonymous' point - Many large (and not so large) companies also specifiy as terms of contract that ANY idea that MAY be related to their business area - they own - and that you can't go off and develop it - even if they don't/won't and the idea was developed out of working hours - that is a great way to stifle innovation. The fact they think they can own our 'thoughts' even out side working hours is quite chilling.

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  • I agree with Peter Langridge on educating the public on what being a professional Engineer is and does BUT there are 2 problems to this - The teachers in our education system and HR personnel.

    Teachers - because the teachers in schools think Engineers are car mechanics or train drivers - I found this out as a Neighbourhood Engineer in the 1980's and it is still current in the 2000's. Teachers have great influence over our children and career options.

    HR Personnel because they have invented inflated job titles as a status symbol alternative to real status or pay. Who wants to be an apprentice when they can be trainee managers (packing shelves) in Tesco's ! I remember being in a meeting in the early 1980's with the Operations Director of one of the business units that I supported as the Company's Assistant Welding Technologist when the Industrial Engineering Manager presented the proposals for a Preventative Maintenance scheme in accordance with a newly released BSI Standard. The scheme designated a series of fancy engineering titles and the Operations Director asked where the business would find the highly skilled personnel for filling such roles and how could it afford the salaries required - The Industrial Engineering Manager responded we didnt have a problem and named them - they were our existing maintenance fitters whose jobs included keeping the paper towel holders and toilet roll holders full of paper - the Operations exasperated response was 'Bog Roll Mechanics'. I didnt approve of the disparaging title BUT his exasperation sums up the status of Engineers in our society!

    What can be done - Teaching history properly showing the roles of engineers improving society like the great Victorian Engineers who put the Great into Great Britain in the Victorian era both in terms of world placings but also improving the lives of ordinary people and still do.

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  • It's not about the title- it's about the value. Even nurses have seen title inflation as every one seems to be a manager.
    It's about properly valuing a vital member of society and then inspiring the next generation. Children understand and explore design innately so we spend the next sixteen years battering the joy and excitement and ability out of them. Then we fail to tell them that you need skills- engineering ,to realise them. Get the story straight and some inspiring figures to tell it along with the resources to tell it well. The good ones will self select.

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