Engineering makes the world go round

In the run-up to the 2012 Olympics engineers will be in great demand — precisely the time, says John Childs, to take the opportunity to stand up and be counted.

Why is it that engineers have such a low profile in the media? Our mainstream television screens are occasionally filled with programmes with a branch of engineering as a theme, but is this really representative of our world today? The presenter will usually be portrayed stereotypically as an eccentric or a cartoon boffin. A tendency to present engineering achievements in terms of personalities above technicalities has done little to enhance the prestige of engineers.

Perceptions and stereotypes are created in our formative years and, once ingrained, are troublesome to shake. There is a tendency for schools to fail to champion engineering as a career to their pupils and its role in all our lives.

While in a school recently I looked at the careers corner. The shelves were stacked with pamphlets for every conceivable subject, but not for engineering. I saw no local engineering employers of note.

But engineering is a truly global role. The fact that oil rigs are not built in your backyard doesn’t mean that engineering expertise is not resident locally. School careers advisers need to be aware of the breadth of engineering. Why is the subject seen as a last resort when its study and application are as arduous as any other profession?

Unfortunately, many within the wide network of technical colleges, where engineering courses were the norm, now struggle to maintain sufficient enrolees to run appropriate courses. Close inspection of present-day certificates often shows less ‘engineering’ content than ‘management’ training.

The reason seems to be that engineering ‘has changed’… but has it? The basic principles remain unchanged. Why is it that everybody wants to be ‘a manager’? Engineering employers, judging from their press advertisements for staff, seem only to call for ‘managers’ as if the engineering is merely a secondary, often unrelated, aspect.

Too many courses seem to be undertaking classroom instruction on matters that properly belong in a practical workshop within a formal apprenticeship. The best place to learn how gearing works is at the bench in the workshop, the best place to learn how to design gearing is in the classroom.

There are current ‘initiatives’ to inform and recruit at all levels, but perhaps too many of these are ‘government initiatives’. So often failings within our industries are related by industry as failures in government policy.

The current watch words are ‘energy’, ‘climate change’ and ‘environmental threat’. To the trained engineer the concept of energy is not new. We understood implicitly that energy was a precious and costly commodity, be it stored as steam under pressure or as kinetic energy in a rotating disc. Lose it or spend it unwisely and the loss of continuity would be crippling.

Whichever direction the government chooses for its future energy policy, the services of large numbers of engineers will be needed to affect that policy. Whether our policies revolve around solid fuel, or are conversely nuclear, it will be engineers who assist in design and who construct the plant and engineers who continue with maintenance and repair. Whether it is wind power, solar energy, wave power or bio that is deemed the solution then it will still be engineers who realise the concept. This should be a golden opportunity to acquaint the public with the fact that the engineer’s roles in major construction projects are more complex than mere ‘bolt bashing’.

Currently, heavy engineering is portrayed almost universally by images of Brunel, standing in front of his anchor chains, watch chain swinging. Despite the man’s undoubted genius, is this the best image to use for modern-day engineering? Does this image enthuse our young people? I doubt it. Even to me, the image is at best fusty — and I say that with due courtesy and respect for the immensity of his achievements.

Now that the euphoria at winning the 2012 Olympics has subsided, the engineer must quietly apply himself to effectively realising the construction programme. Every conceivable aspect of engineering will be involved, from footing to top stone. Plant engineers and engineer surveyors will again be in constant demand. It will be interesting to see how the industry is portrayed in the intervening years to 2012. I suspect we’ll be inundated with financial facts, threats of missed deadlines and similar matters. Architects will be lauded, financiers will be applauded and accountants will be celebrated, but engineers may be overlooked, unless we all try to promote our achievements in a more positive way.

Be we transport engineers, plant engineers or engineer surveyors, what we do collectively and personally is vital. It keeps the world running — let us not forget that.

Edited extracts of a speech by the new Society of Operations Engineers president John Childs