How to turn around the image of engineering

Guest blog

A chartered engineer, David Falzani is president of Sainsbury Management Fellows (SMF) which was founded over 25 years ago by Lord Sainsbury to encourage better management skills in UK engineering. David is also chief executive of Polaris Associates which helps entrepreneurial companies develop and grow as well as a visiting professor at Nottingham University Business School where he teaches how to bring technology, innovation, entrepreneurialism together to create successful businesses.  

I sometimes get irritated when I see engineering graduate job adverts.

You’ll have seen similarly ‘functional’ ads: no salary details, no passion, no compelling reasons to commit yourself, and if there’s a picture at all, it may well be of someone in a boiler suit or Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) next to a stack of industrial equipment.

After 4 intensive years of study, and itching to change the world, is it a surprise that Generation Y don’t find such adverts attractive?

Your experience of engineering may differ.

Focus groups with undergraduates report job adverts as being old fashioned, full of negative stereotypes, too male oriented, bland, boring and uninspiring. It’s part of a bigger problem. The SMF Hard Hat Index highlighted how the profession’s own media unwittingly uses imagery likely to turn off young people.

SMFs’ YouGov poll also asked the public (think about the key influencer groups of teachers and parents) what items engineers primarily wear in an average work day, and unsurprisingly the hard hat came top with 63% of the votes.

We have all heard of the growing shortage in the supply engineers. EngineeringUK estimates that by 2020 1.86 million engineering positions will need to be filled in a country that produces only 46,000 engineering graduates each year.

So,the image of engineering has never been so critical to the profession in its ability to attract, recruit, and retain young persons.

Generations Y and Z are the most brand conscious generations ever. They have been brought up in an unprecedented environment of branded consumer products which deliver deeply rooted emotional value drivers. Think about the success of the iPhone, Facebook, and Instagram’s role using photos and videos in communications. Think modern console games, branded coffee stores, sports clothing brands. Could any of us have predicted 15 years ago that ‘absolutely normal people’ would indulge £700 on a tablet computer that’s so compromised compared to a PC? £1,200 on a ‘consumer’ DSLR destined for use a handful of times per year? £800 on a mountain bike that will be driven in a car to somewhere to be ridden on? £400 on a tattoo? Looking around, all of this is absolutely normal today. My point is not that consumerism has gone mad (although it has, by the way), but that all of the above products deliver far more emotional value than they do functional value. This is the new normal, and the environment that young persons understand intimately.

Image and emotional value are therefore paramount to commune effectively with young persons.

So, it’s an important issue, but without a multi-million pound budget, and perhaps no official mandate, how do we fix it?

We can’t easily change the way that mass media such as the BBC insists on depicting engineering with images of cutting fluid splashing across a 1900s lathe with a brown jacketed operator ‘engineer’. And government, although a logical agency of change, is unlikely to provide a solution.

However, we can lead by example. That’s the key thing isn’t it? Whilst we can’t easily change the outside actors, we can’t really make a strong case if we haven’t even managed to make the changes within our own community.

Here’re some starting thoughts:

  • Firstly, accept that the engineer’s natural bashfulness, modesty, and self effacing nature are not assets in communicating the emotional value and prestige of engineering.
  • Treat company communication materials as publicity materials, banishing those images that destroy prestige. I’m talking about lazy inappropriate images of PPE and associated text that does not excite or inspire. Yes, I know many engineers use PPE in their role, but it’s the difference between emotion and function. Even Apple’s adverts say ‘user experience may differ’. They certainly don’t show iTunes crashing, or losing your call signal if you hold your phone a certain way, or the maps program directing you to drive across an airport runway.
  • Take particular care with recruitment activities. Think about the emotional value that is being portrayed. Choose images and messages that young persons indicate they find inspirational. Use focus groups to guide choices of superior packages. Demand better representation from our HR Depts and recruitment agencies.
  • Ask our own magazines and industry bodies to do better.
  • If you have them, insist on always showing your designatory letters. They are a genuine source of emotional value to holders, and of marketing value to outsiders. Companies that ban their use are effectively adding to the problem. It’s not a form of one-upmanship over colleagues; it’s a prestigious sign of commitment and professionalism.

Image and emotional value are vital to attract and retain people. We have a vast ‘back catalogue’ of great stories, but we need to portray it more thoughtfully to inspire recruits with great career aspirations and who want to make a difference to our society.