Engineering must find its voice

4 min read

An engineer

Even the staunchest readers of Engineer might be surprised to know that UK engineering businesses turned over some £1.06 trillion in the year ending March 2011. That’s three times the size of the retail sector or 23.9% of the turnover of all UK enterprises. Now I admit I’m using engineering in its broadest sense but for the purpose of my discussion a more detailed definition isn’t too relevant.

The engineering sector employs 5.4 million people across 542,440 companies. Some are world leading and highly innovative, others form the bedrock of a broad manufacturing base. Together they are a crucial part of our economy and society. Yet their amazing achievements in safer and faster travel, communications, construction, health care, infrastructure, power generation and even sport seem to be taken for granted by our voracious consumer society.

If you were to ask the man or woman in the street, How many UK engineering businesses you can name? – you’d be lucky if they knew two or three

Over the past 50 years engineering in the UK has suffered a dramatic fall from consciousness of the mass public. A large proportion of the population does not appreciate its criticality, takes its contribution for granted and yet is quick to blame when things ‘go wrong’.

If you were to ask the man or woman in the street, How many UK engineering businesses you can name? – you’d be lucky if they knew two or three. Likewise, how many present day engineers can you name? You might be quoted James Dyson and there it would stop. I can guarantee they would know far more chefs.

Ask similar questions in Germany and by contrast there would be no problem in identifying engineering businesses. Germany has dozens of high profile Engineering companies, many of them global brands: VW, Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Porsche, Bosch, Rowenta, Miele, Siemens, MAN, Bayer, Airbus, Krone, Linde, Wolf, to name but a few.

So what’s going wrong here? Well Britain’s engineering is somewhat different to Germany’s. We have very few high profile names, Rolls-Royce JCB Jaguar Land Rover? Instead much of our engineering is high-tech, very specialized, often part of a supply chain. Most are business to business organisations - what they do, or make, lies well outside the day to day experiences of the vast majority of us. The upshot is that these companies have never developed the ability to communicate what they do in simple terms to a general public. They don’t think they have to; it’s not part of their business. The end result is that 99% of the public, and I include politicians and journalists, can’t understand what the majority of our engineering businesses do.

The 2012 Olympics were a missed opportunity to showcase UK engineering expertise

This impasse has created an indifference on the part of editors, TV producers and the media in general, who are the critical link in giving engineering a BIG voice and so the negative spiral is perpetuated. And it’s been like that for years.

For example, Princess Anne recently announced the winners of the very first Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. The £1 million Prize is to be awarded annually to the individual or team judged to have made a significant contribution to engineering globally. The premier award went to Louis Pouzin, Robert Kahn, Vint Cerf, Tim Berners Lee and Marc Andeessen for their ground-breaking work, starting in the 70s, which led to the internet and the web. The impact of their work is immense. Sadly the announcement of the winners was given scant coverage in the papers and marginalised on the TV news.

Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering winner announcement.
The QE prize for engineering - awarded to the inventors of the internet - received depressingly little media coverage

Contrast that with the publicity, debate and coverage that surrounds the Turner Art and Man Booker Literary prizes - which are for tiny sums in comparison. Or the razzmatazz of The Baftas and Brit awards.

A further example of hidden achievements of engineering can be found in the delivery of the Olympic Park for London 2012. Congratulations for this were heaped on the Olympic Organising Committee, the government ministers, the ceremony directors, and the Mayor of London. The men and women who truly delivered these facilities were hardly mentioned.

Such missed opportunities to celebrate engineering are many, but they also offer the opportunity for change. I’m not suggesting engineers suddenly strive for celebrity status and the limelight; by their nature that is not in their character. What I am advocating is that the entire engineering community finds its voice and communicates in a much more accessible manner to a lay audience.

“Why should the engineering community bother?” you might say. “If that’s the public perception so be it”

Engineering needs to tap into the psyche of the student for theirs are the years of optimism and idealism.

Well firstly it’s a matter of giving all engineers a feeling that their contribution to society is being recognized, but more importantly it’s our future. Having been out of favour with successive governments for years there is now a growing realisation, undoubtedly prompted by the demise of the financial sector, that engineering, and in particular high tech engineering, may, after all be the route for growth and financial stability.

But if we are to deliver on this Britain needs at least 100,000 engineering graduates every year. Currently there is a shortfall of 42%. And of those who do graduate in engineering more than a quarter choose occupations outside science engineering and technology seduced by the image of other walks of life.

Add in the fact that only one in 10 of our engineers are female, the lowest in Europe and the challenge facing our engineering sector as it seeks to tap into the skills pool becomes truly apparent.

Without a workforce equipped with the skills the economy needs, Britain cannot trade out of recession and will remain burdened by enormous debt for years to come. Already, engineering companies are having to turn away new business, business that is vital to economic growth, due to lack of skilled staff.

It’s time for Engineering Companies to find their voice and make their subject tangible, exciting and meaningful to the ‘everyman’.

Engineering UK’s initiative to boost science in schools has been a bold first step but to truly attract students into the professions we need to appreciate the motivating factors in making career choices. Engineering needs to tap into the psyche of the student for theirs are the years of optimism and idealism.

Engineering, whatever the sector, needs to promote its criticality to the way we live and explain its social value. What would life be like if that engineering didn’t exist?

As Sir Christopher Snowden puts it “ If we don’t communicate well as a community, how can we expect the general public to understand the value of what we add to society?”

It’s time for Engineering Companies to find their voice and make their subject tangible, exciting and meaningful to the ‘everyman’. To throw off the inward looking, grey image and show that their careers embrace technology, are challenging, socially important, fun and rewarding both financially and intellectually.


Barrie Weaver - Biog

For over 30 years Barrie Weaver’s award winning team have designed products and communications for a hugely diverse range of companies; from start-ups  to blue-chip in 14 countries.  With projects ranging from lawnmowers  to aircraft interiors, medical equipment to computers, telephones to ion implanters he has gained a rare insight into a many aspects of engineering and the manner in which companies present themselves.