Comment: It’s time to rethink engineers’ role in the world

If were going to attract more people into engineering we need to think differently about how we articulate the role that engineers play in our modern world writes Andrew Churchill OBE, chair of JJ Churchill Ltd and the Engineers 2030 working group.

Nearly every day we hear warnings that a failure to achieve global sustainability goals and reduce the impact of climate change will result in irreversible environmental damage and a widening of socioeconomic inequality around the world.

We have all the technology we need to move to a cleaner, renewable world. All the stats are showing incredible expansion in net zero activity firmly contributing to the UK economy. We have exponential growth in solar, wind, EV batteries. This activity creates innovation-led, high-value employment opportunities, attracts foreign direct investment, and spans new and emerging sectors, such as renewables, carbon capture, or green finance, as well as more traditional, established sectors, such as manufacturing.

Many of the structures and processes that are in place to attract, train, retain and reskill our engineers are not fit for purpose and haven’t been for some time

And with a few exceptions, we also have the politics. 90% of the world’s economies say they will be net zero sometime this century. Of course we should have done this over 30 years ago, but we are gradually transitioning away from fossil fuels. It can be done but the simple truth is that we must do it faster.

Engineers and technicians are both the answer and the problem here. They are essential to the rapid development and implementation of technology solutions to the climate emergency and to driving growth and prosperity across the economy. So why does the UK still not have enough of them? It’s because we’re failing to rethink and reframe what it means to be an engineer nowadays and many of the structures and processes that are in place to attract, train, retain and reskill our engineers are not fit for purpose and haven’t been for some time.

We need to change fundamentally what it means to be an engineer in 2030 and beyond. 

If we’re going to attract greater numbers of people and a diversity of talent into engineering, we need to do something different. We
need to rethink what an engineer is in the 21st century and crucially, review and transform how we inspire, educate, and develop more engineering talent in the coming years. We need to frame and articulate the value of and, the important – and changing – role that engineers and technicians play in our modern world.

Over the last nine months, I’ve been chairing a new UK engineering profession-led project, Engineers 2030, that is looking to do just that. I’ve been heartened by the enthusiastic way with which the idea of change has been received, excited by the steps that the UK engineering profession is already taking, but also occasionally daunted by how much there is to do if we are to achieve the change required. 

So far, input from the profession has come from the National Engineering Policy Centre, comprising 39 professional engineering institutions, Engineering UK, the Engineering Council and the Royal Academy of Engineering. Collectively we and the wider education and skills ecosystem, including government, have much to do in generating the capacity to shape the future.

Engineers 2030—a drive for a holistic approach to changing the status quo

We want Engineers 2030 to be a catalyst for wider change. Engineering requires not only essential and advanced technical skills to solve global challenges, but also demands a new set of behaviours and ethical values from our engineers and technicians if we are to build a world in which both people and planet can thrive.

It’s also clear that a piecemeal approach is not enough and that we must work more ambitiously and collaboratively to drive the change required. Engineers 2030 is taking a whole systems approach to ensure that we understand all the drivers and levers that can bring about the step change needed – and at the pace required. This includes the training and professional development systems in the workforce beyond formal education. Are they ready to support the scale and pace of the change needed to transform engineering skills?

This week, I’m delighted to be launching a consultation on our initial thinking for a Vision and Principles for Engineers 2030 that positions engineers as guardians of the natural world, developing products and processes that restore, renew, or revitalise sources of energy and materials in the pursuit of sustainable and equitable growth. Crucially our vision recognises that we need to collaborate and act quickly together to drive the scale and pace of change that global challenges demand. The Engineers 2030 project team look forward to hearing from you at our launch event on Monday 18 March or in the months to come. 

Andrew Churchill OBE FREng is the Executive Chairman of JJ Churchill Ltd and has been chairing the project working group for Engineers 2030, a project led by the Royal Academy of Engineering on behalf of the National Engineering Policy Centre.