Tuesday, 21 October 2014
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Protected status, titles, and a broken coffee machine

The coffee machine at Engineer Towers is broken. A Post-it Note has appeared on the front, informing all the shuddering caffeine addicts that ‘an engineer has been called.’

The irony is not lost.

Many of our readers will be fuming at the thought that someone who comes to fix an errant beverage maker should be called an engineer. That should be a protected title, they argue; its misuse is a key factor in why engineering has a bad image in the UK. Difficult to hold your head up as a designer of jet engine components or control systems for nuclear power stations, when you tell people you’re an engineer and everyone assumes that you fix coffee machines for a living.

Leaving aside the fact that the situation could be avoided if you told people what you actually did rather than just saying you’re an engineer (which, even in its ‘properly used’ sense, is a very loose definition of an incredibly wide range of activities), is this conviction that the status of engineers is down to the non-protected nature of title actually true?

Go to France and Germany, where only fully-qualified engineers are allowed to use the title, and you won’t see this attitude, we’re told. Engineers are properly respected and well-paid there.

Well, perhaps. Or it might be down to linguistics. In French and German, the title ‘engineer’ clearly displays its roots in the word ‘ingenious’ and has no link to the words for engine. It’s this link in English which is at the root of the confusion: engineers make engines, therefore anyone who works on an engine is an engineer, therefore anyone who fixes machines is an engineer, and we’re back to our broken coffee machine.

There’s a touching faith in the ability of a protected term to encourage respect. If you only allow qualified engineers to call themselves Engineer, does that mean that people will stop calling the bloke who fixes the coffee machine, or the washing machine, or the boiler, an engineer? Of course they won’t. And, really, why should they? Are all these people who are keen to protect the title of engineer so proficient that they could fix a washing machine? I know how induction motors work but I’m damn sure I couldn’t fix one. And as for the coffee machine, well, it’s a pretty complicated model. Grinds the beans and everything.

Maybe a test on repairing common devices should be part of the qualification. If you can’t fix a washing machine, no Engineer title for you. Just a thought.

washing machine

Source: Wikipedia Commons

You can see how it works. Can you fix it? No you can’t.

There’s also the link between status and pay. Protect the title Engineer, and salaries will rise, the argument seems to go. Well, there’s not mch evidence to support that theory.

On the other hand, the ‘skills gap’ that’s featured so often in our pages might work in engineers’ favour here. I was told this week by a senior chemical industry figure that the salary for control engineers in the Northeast has almost doubled over the past ten years, because of the scarcity of properly qualified people. The flipside of the drop in numbers of engineers could be that skills become more in demand, and according to the tenets of market economics, commodities that are in demand become more valuable.

Or maybe I’m being a bit too optimistic and confusing anecdote with data. But then, that’s what proponents of professional recognition are doing too.

But relying on anecdote for a bit longer, I’m not convinced that the status gap really exists; at least, not to the extent that some pessimists think it does. There has undoubtedly been a revival in interest in engineering over the past five years or so; a glance at the TV schedules is enough to suggest this. And whether it’s lip-service or not, there are certainly more politicians talking about the importance of technology and the industrial sectors supported by it than there were when I started my undergraduate degree, for example. I think that people fully appreciate the difference between someone who designs aircraft and someone who fixes air conditioning, whether or not they call both people engineers. And just stopping one of those people from using the word ‘engineer’ on their van isn’t going to change a thing.


Readers' comments (76)

  • Does the linguistics argument hold up in North America where you have to be a registered Professional Engineer to "Engineer"

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  • Would the same thinking apply to the contract waste disposal Company I use? When contacting them, an automated message says, "Please wait, while I transfer you to one of our waste disposal 'EXECUTIVES'.

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  • I'm a well qualified and experienced engineer, but could I fix either a washing machine or a coffee machine? Unlikely. I have far less of an issue with someone who does this job calling him or herself an engineer than someone being a "sales engineer"! Most salesmen I've met wouldn't even know how to lift the bonnet let alone do anything to what lies below! It's not the title that matters it's what else is going on in the UK: the lack of "proper" apprenticeships, "proper" universities, "proper" degrees etc. We need to get these back before we start worrying about titles. Most sales staff now call themselves "sales executives" or "account managers" nowadays anyway it seems!

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  • How about "Vending Machineer", "PC Doctor", "Drainage Architect"...

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  • Just my two cents on the matter.

    I'm not so bothered about peoples perception of me as an engineer as I am about my perception of other 'engineers'
    I spent a lot of time and money earning the title of engineer. And with the increase in university fees future generations will be paying a lot more.

    So to have someone with 6 weeks training in boiler repair call themselves an 'engineer' is a little annoying.

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  • The linguistics of North America have never had anything to do with English (they speak American) where a locomotive driver (or train driver if rolling stock is attached) is called an Engineer since he or she controls the 'Engine'.
    The problem lies in the concept that is still expounded by many teachers in our school system that engineering is a manual & low value career path.

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  • Whatever you think of IT, whether you think it's an Engineering discipline or not (and the Engineering Council seem to think it is,) there is a microcosm of this problem. "Oh, you work in IT? My laptop's broken, could you just..." Never mind that I've not touched a Windows computer in years and I have no intention of upgrading anything to Windows 8 for anyone. Nevermind that I spend my days managing an estate of hundreds of servers or understand how the internet actually works...

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  • Engineers have it lucky as they only risk people asking them to fix their photocopiers. Doctors in any subject get cornered at parties and asked to identify embrassing rashes...

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  • For many years I have used the term "Design Engineer" when people ask what I do (even though I can certainly repair a coffee machine when necessary!)

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  • Are you busy? Ours is still broken.

  • I think that addressing the shortage of qualified engineers that are being trained through a full and comprehensive apprenticeship is the topic that should be uppermost at the moment. I had a full 5 year apprenticeship to serve which gave me time in the field whilst learning, invaluable I think. This type of opportunity seems to be getting rarer and is, I believe, a great loss to engineering in general

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