Point of view

There are damaging myths which surround the engineering professional that should be put down once and for all

Alan Rudge

The engineering profession suffers from the persistent belief that it is undervalued, lacks status, and is poorly regarded by other professions, the Government, and the public at large.

So what is the problem, and what can bodies like the Engineering Council and the institutions do to tackle it?

The UK has a reputation for being innovative, though this is sometimes confused with scientific discovery rather than true innovation. Nevertheless there is little doubt that the UK has produced its share of innovatory advances in engineering and technology. I suspect that our national trait of bloody-mindedness and refusal to conform has got something to do with it. By and large, British engineers will always go the extra mile to find a completely different way of doing things.

So why is the profile of engineering so low?

In 1951, despite two ruinous world wars, we were second only to the US in manufacturing output per head. Today we are 16th. This is not because we are worse than before, but because other nations have developed faster than we have.

Keen yachtsman will tell you that when the going gets rough, ignore what the competitor boats are doing and concentrate on getting the maximum out of your own craft. I believe the UK should do the same thing.

The UK engineering industry employs over 1.7 million people. In 1995 it earned £75bn from exports. Despite our comparative decline, it remains a vibrant and dynamic sector in which we still have many companies which rate highly on an international scale.

Our future and status as engineers is closely bound up in the success of our own particular boat, so let us consider what we can do to improve our performance going forward.

Engineering must be a profession in which members are recognised and respected for the value they add to our society.

This is not merely in the interests of the engineers themselves; it is equally important for the industry as a whole that the achievements of engineers and engineering are understood and valued.

This is not only about attracting the most talented young people into the industry, it is also about making managers and employees feel they are working in a valued and respected industry.

There are damaging myths which surround the engineering profession that should be put down once and for all.

One, for example, is that engineers are poorly paid. Another is that unlike lawyers or accountants, engineers do not get to the top. Both lead to the third myth: engineers and engineering lacks status.

The Engineering Council has done some research to explore these widespread beliefs, and have found that they are completely without foundation.

Engineers collectively are not poorly paid. Salary surveys cannot always be compared directly but, for example, the Institution of Electrical Engineers has determined that average salaries for electrical engineers are second only to medics, and higher than those of accountants and lawyers.

We have similarly concluded that average engineering salaries are comparable with other sectors. A recent survey by Barclays Bank revealed that the average engineering graduate’s starting salary is higher than in many other professions. Unemployment rates for engineers at 2.5% are half that for graduate unemployment as a whole.

No doubt everyone can point to an example of someone in another occupation or profession who has an above-average income. But there are examples of engineers who are equally well rewarded.

As for engineers getting to the top, we have found that 84 of the FTSE 100 companies have engineers represented on the board of directors this is second only to accountants.

In 1994 a Worcester Polytechnic Institute survey found that nearly one in two UK companies had either a chairman or a chief executive with a technical degree.

A recent survey by Manchester University of the chief executives of 43,000 manufacturing companies showed that there are three times more graduate engineers at the top of these firms than accountants. What is more, looking at the size of the populations from which the top executives are drawn, a graduate engineer has a 30% better chance of getting the top job than an accountant, a 70% better chance than other graduates, and a 1,500% better chance than academically unqualified people.

The truth is that engineers and scientists are as successful at getting to the top as any other profession, and probably more successful than most.

With the increasing complexity of the world and the almost total dependence on technology, this trend can only increase.

So if engineering lacks status, then whose fault is it? Many studies have tried to lay the blame on national history and culture. If all else fails, then blame the Government or the education system.

All of these may have been factors, but they are convenient because they are largely beyond our control, and so allow us to whinge and do nothing. In many respects the members of our own profession who do the whingeing are the chief culprits.

Status is not something we can plead for. A major part of our problem is a straightforward one of poor communications to the media, to opinion-formers and to the public.

So do we need a vision to achieve our ends? I think not. There is nobody ‘out there’ who can fix things for us. Dreams do not come into it. The answer lies in all of us having the energy and commitment to tackle the problem.

This may be a multiple-parameter problem, but some of the significant variables are, I believe, within our control.

We are all members of a great profession with a great tradition. It is innovative, exciting and pervasive. We should be proud of it and show that we are by walking tall.

Alan Rudge is chairman of the Senate of the Engineering Council and deputy chief executive of BT.