Protected status, titles, and a broken coffee machine

Features editor

Protected status for engineers probably wouldn’t change anything. You’re better off telling people what you do.

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
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.