Engineering has a poor public image. Complaining about lack of status has almost become one of the tenets of the profession.
So what happens when someone decides to do something about it? For months now, leading professional engineering organisations and advertising agency J Walter Thompson (JWT) have been visiting the UK’s biggest engineering companies. Their mission? To present JWT’s ideas for a TV-based campaign to improve the image of the profession and to seek millions of pounds of industry money to fund it.
Not surprisingly, asking firms to commit £1m each in the current economic climate has elicited words of support but little cash. Deadlines have been extended, but funds have not been forthcoming. For weeks, the campaign has been on the brink of collapse.
All this has proved exasperating for the enthusiasts within the groups leading the campaign project: the Engineering Employers’ Federation, the Engineering and Marine Training Authority and the Engineering Council.
But it has also been a frustrating time for energy and industry minister John Battle, an energetic and industrious supporter of British manufacturing.
‘I’m an impatient man. Time runs out for politicians. I want action yesterday,’ says Battle, speaking from his penthouse-style office overlooking Westminster Abbey.
Days earlier, he had been at the headquarters of the Engineering Council to announce that the DTI would give £1.5m over the next three years to promote engineering. The subtext of his announcement was a clear message to industry: put up some hard cash and get behind the campaign.
‘I’m prepared to take risks,’ he says. ‘I didn’t think that there were enough companies getting together around that banner. If we put our funds up it shows a solid commitment from the Government, and I hope that will jump start a lot more to come in.’
Battle justifies the grant as contributing to a crucial part of the knowledge-driven economy a buzzword of the Competitiveness White Paper due to be implemented this spring.
Many engineers agree with the principle, but not all are convinced that an advertising campaign is the right way to go about this. Neither are they sure about Quinco, another worthy non-profit making organisation which aims to promote the public understanding of engineering.
Battle dismisses such sceptics with his characteristic rhetoric. ‘They’re not trained as admen. The air we all breathe is the air of the media today and we’ve got to breathe it or we’ll die.’
On taking office, he says, Tony Blair told ministers that it was not enough just to govern effectively: the Government had to communicate and explain what it was doing as well. ‘This applies to everybody who does anything in the public domain. In the area of science, technology and engineering I think it’s even more incumbent on people to communicate what they’re doing.
Battle believes that engineering has neglected this dimension of communication: ‘Engineers are very good at saying to anyone who’ll listen that they’re undervalued. If you keep saying that, people will take you at your own valuation. What we need is engineers to say: I love what I do and I’m going to go out and talk about it.’
Of the £1.5m Battle pledged, half will go to the image campaign, while most of the rest will go to Quinco the successor body to the much- criticised Year of Engineering Success, set up in 1997. Battle says that the grant to Quinco (also funded by ‘patron’ companies) will be carefully audited, and he has asked to be briefed personally on developments. The money for the image campaign is contingent on ‘receiving substantial support from industry’, while for Quinco it depends on satisfactory progress being made towards a minimum of 50 patrons.
‘If in six weeks’ time Quinco hasn’t found a single additional patron, then I’ll be asking pretty heavy questions,’ he says.
Battle has also made it clear that he sees the Engineering Council as the Government’s primary contact with the profession. ‘Engineering boosts its effectiveness by speaking through one channel. Government recognises the council as its key source of information and advice.’
He elaborates: ‘In government we will look to the council to be the champion of the profession: we will take it seriously. We’ll assume that its feelers are out there to let us know what are the key concerns of the engineering industry as a whole.’
With government funds and an advertising campaign in prospect, there has never been a better time for engineering to do something serious about its image.