Wednesday, 23 April 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)

  • I have been listening to comments ref the mis-use of the title 'Engineer' for more years than I care to remember. At the end of the day does it realy matter who uses the title. Enjoy your profession and stop worrying about job titles.
    The one skill that we must learns is how to market ourselves and the rest will take care of itself.

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  • As a Chartered Engineer I went through a very long and time consuming education to qualify, Ensuring that I also obtained a very practical streak. The Institution was very helpful with practical advice on the way up. But come a recession I was curtly told they could not advise and the annual fees were due.
    Fortunately I started a second career which I enjoyed and it fed the family. I have met many relapsed Chartered Engineers and it may be more a measure of Britains inability to use its educated population in favour of its talkers.
    Nuff said

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  • In all of this discussion the professional status of Technician Engieers seems to have been overlooked.

    There is a glaring anomily when a gas fitter must be nationally registered, but a control technician responsible for the safe maintenance of multi million pound, high risk industrial plant is not!

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  • The distinction can be made by using the term Chartered Engineer.

    The public perception is one that the profession itself, and most notably the Institutions, must address. Unfortunately it (they) appear unable to do this.

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  • I'm a programmer and what we do is a bit like science (computer science) and a bit like engineering and a bit like design. Nobody wants us :-). Scientists don't and engineers don't. I think this is fair in a way although the titles are an attempt to describe one thing in terms of something else which can be similar at times. My limited experience is that Engineers make terrible programmers so it might even be better to be disassociated from them :-).

    Anyhow "programmer" is a completely adequate term. "Architect" in software is actually something of a negative as it implies a person who is only a thinker and not a doer and you can't be a good thinker in software if you don't also do (it's usually a disaster when management make the mistake of hiring people like this).

    I think if the term "Engineer' was protected then it wouldn't be possible to use it in job titles or adverts and that would go an incredibly long way towards regenerating it. "Technician" is a perfectly reasonable term for fixers-of-stuff.

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  • The first thing all engineers should do is learn to communicate. It is a rare a thread in these pages that has no errors. As a profession, we can’t spell and we can’t punctuate well. Often, we don’t even choose the right word. Deciphering our messages can be very taxing.

    I think we should all apply some discipline to our pronouncements and I suggest drafting them in a word processor to allow a bit of proof reading before posting them into the comment box.

    If we communicate well, we will immediately distinguish ourselves from those undeserving of the title that we so jealously wish to protect.

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  • To me it matters for the next generation and schools' careers services. I found out the hard way after giving a careers talk that I could give loads and loads of examples of engineering but couldn't concisely explain 'engineering' to a group of people who had no experience of the profession. I also vehemently agree that the criteria for use should be membership of the Engineering Council or affiliated organisations, NOT directly linked to possession of an engineering degree. As a graduate, I was whipped into shape by someone who came through the apprentice schemes of the 60s and who was generally unimpressed with new recruits who thought a degree was proof in itself that they were competent. It didn't take him long to teach the newbies how wrong they were, and how real engineering was done!

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  • I think that protection of the title needs to follow function and the law doesn't provide that function in the same way that it does in other countries.

    One of the fundamental problems with the Health and Safety law in the UK compared to other Countries is that competency is generally poorly defined and is a task for lawyers to argue when there is an accident . There are a number of pieces of Legislation where tweaking the definition of "competent person" to mean as a minimum a Professional Engineer would create a whole different perspective.

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  • It is a bit annoying the misuse of the term engineer. I remember when I was in my final year at university and talking to certain individuals who gave unsolicited careers advice along the lines of: "you don't want to be an engineer you should be aiming to be a technician".
    So now if asked by people outside the engineering disciplines I always say "I'm a real engineer".
    It does make people stop and think. Oh I can fix washing machines as well.

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  • If you are a self professed 'Engineer' and you have stayed in your position for many years moaning and whingeing about the 'idiots' from Uni who have raced past you in the promotion stakes you deserve everything you don't get!!. The old saying "If you want to get on, get out!" is true. If you consider yourself essential to your company then prove it by getting another job and show your net worth.

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