Hats off to engineers

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Hard Hat Index – YouGov survey - .PDF file.

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Hard Hat Index – national and trade survey - .PDF file.

News editor

Does the portrayal of engineers as always wearing hard hats help or hinder the drive to attract new blood into the profession?

Numerous editorials in The Engineer have been devoted to the thorny issue of attracting young people into engineering and keeping them in the profession once they’ve graduated or completed an apprenticeship.

We do this with good reason. EngineeringUK estimates that by 2020 1.86 million engineering positions will need to be filled in a country that produces 46,000 engineering graduates each year.

What, we collectively ask at Engineer Towers, can be done to attract people into the profession and what could possibly be putting people off?

Is it a question of salary or career progression? Are pension plans and annual leave entitlement not good enough? Do the staff canteens at engineering companies have a reputation for serving up inedible lunches?

We just don’t know, or we didn’t know until Tuesday morning when an email was dropped into our inboxes that provided the very answer we’ve been looking for.

The answer as to why young people are put off engineering is not so much under our noses but on top of our heads and it’s titles such as The Engineer that are indirectly responsible for the shortfall in young talent.

According to a survey, media portrayal of engineers relies too much on the humble hard hat to define the profession and this, apparently, is detrimental to the perception of the role of engineers.

This is the conclusion of the Hard Hat Index, which has been launched by the Sainsbury Management Fellowship (SMF) to quantify the number of hard hats appearing in selected media.

The organisation simultaneously published a YouGov poll on public perceptions about engineers, plus results gained from a focus group made up of winners of the Engineering Leadership Awards (ELAs) scheme.

SMF concede that the Hard Hat Index is ‘intentionally whimsical’ but it is worth a look, along with the YouGov poll.

SMF say their methodology ‘is based on 12 months monitoring of the appearance of hard hats in carefully selected engineering media and 18 months monitoring of the national broadsheets.

‘During those periods, 185 depictions of engineers wearing hard hats featured in 16 engineering titles (118 adverts and 67 editorials)…Nine national newspapers featured 940 hard hat images (88 adverts and 682 editorials).’

This had me reaching for three copies of The Engineer, picked at random, to see whether we’re culpable. I’m pleased to report that issues dated August 16, 2010; April 30 2012; and March 2013 (the Policy and Projects special edition) contained seven pictures with people wearing the offensive headwear from a total of 148 pages.

Looking to the nationals, we don’t know what stories the images were related to. Clearly, a story about car designers wouldn’t warrant a hard hat but one about a big civil engineering project would. Quite often news desks rely on the companies being written about to supply an image and there isn’t much you can do if they supply one full of engineers wearing hard hats. In our experience, we’re likely to search our own stock of images if the one supplied isn’t as dynamic as we’d hoped.

As for advertising? Well, that’s down a company’s marketing department and the agency they engage with. Its out of our hands entirely.

I’d argue that a more worrying trend is for broadcasters to constantly misuse the word engineer. Only last Wednesday I caught glimpse of show on the BBC where the presenter set himself up as a repairer of white goods, an ‘engineer’ if you will. This, I’d suggest, is more damning to the profession than a hard hat ever will, despite the protestations of SMF who say, ‘The hard hat has become symbolic of engineers and SMF believes that this association is an example of how images detrimental to the perception of the role of engineers have far-reaching effects. This includes the ability to inspire, recruit and retain engineering graduates within the profession.’

The public, it would appear, are somewhat set in their ways when it comes perceptions of engineers. SMF’s YouGov poll of over 2,000 people found that 63 per cent believe the hard hat is worn by engineers on an average working day.

Furthermore, engineers were perceived to work mainly on construction sites and industrial sites with only 40 per cent believing engineering can take place in an office, which is, admittedly, more concerning when you consider the influence that this might have on those close to the people who took part in the survey.

The public, do, however, hold engineers in reasonable esteem, coming sixth (49 per cent of votes) in a league table of 11 professions that are particularly well respected in society.

Similarly, when asked to choose between a selection of attributes and skills associated with engineers, ‘professional’ came top (66 per cent of votes), followed by seeing them as ‘well qualified’ (64 per cent), and ‘being practical’ came third (61 per of votes).

So there you go, you all work mainly on building sites but at least people respect you. Maybe magic pixies build cars and jet engines, make sure we have oil, gas, and electricity, or keep us alive on life-support machines. It’s anyone’s guess. Something has to change, clearly.

The last word on this goes to SMF president, David Falzani, who sums things up very well.

‘The industry is being ineffective in how it portrays itself. It is our responsibility to communicate the opportunities better – we need to excite people about the diversity of engineering careers, so they can see the scope of responsibility, the opportunity to improve mankind’s condition, grow the economy and earn a good salary.

‘Building a better brand identity for engineers, alongside the work being done to promote engineering to young people, will draw more high calibre graduates towards the profession and ensure that a diversity of people stay within engineering.

‘We hope the Hard Hat Index will start a dialogue about the image of engineering and encourage companies and the professional societies to review how they portray the profession through their marketing, recruitment, publishing and reporting.’