Pam Liversidge, the new president of the IMechE, is promoting the benefits ordinary people get from engineering, such as advances in medicine. David Fowler reports

One particular field of science and technology will be crucial to engineering in the next millennium: medicine.

That is the view of Pam Liversidge, who has just been elected president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in its 150th anniversary year. It’s a surprising theory, but one she argues persuasively. And it fits crucially with what she has chosen as a key theme of her presidential year: engineers’ contribution to the quality of life.

The average age of the population, she says, is set to increase. Health care is set to `come to the top of the agenda’. Engineers are taking an increasingly active role in responding to the demands of doctors and surgeons. And it strikes a chord with the young.

`From an institution’s viewpoint, the message to get the hearts and minds of younger people is to talk about the contribution engineers make to medicine. Though it’s a relatively small part of engineering it is a super vehicle for getting a very good message across. I spent a number of years in the forging industry producing products such as hip prostheses. When I talk to schoolchildren about something like that, and then talk about compressor blades for aeroengines, they aren’t so interested. But everybody can identify with the hip implants – they’ve got a granny who’s got one, it’s real, it’s part of their life.’

On its anniversary, the IMechE is not just looking back. Like the profession as a whole, it is looking ahead to the new millennium and reassessing its role. What will be society’s demands on engineers, and what will engineers demand of their professional bodies? How can society, and young people in particular, be enthused about the profession and encouraged to join it?

If, in becoming the first of the UK’s main engineering institutions to appoint a woman as president, the IMechE was hoping Liversidge would bring a fresh perspective to the job, then it looks as if it’s made the right move.

Ironically, Liversidge says, she got into engineering for the wrong reason. `I had this idea that I wanted to deal with machines and inanimate objects and that I wasn’t terribly good with people – a hangover of teenage years. But actually engineering is as much about people as it is about machines. One of the messages we have to get across is that engineering is a super career for getting involved in teams and organisations.’ But the fact that engineering is such a multidisciplinary, team-based activity these days works against it as far as its public image is concerned.

`There us a perception problem associated with the discipline, unfortunately. If you go back to the Victorian era you had the well-known entrepreneurs: Stephenson, Locke, Brunel. But there aren’t any personalities now, and people think in terms of personalities. It’s become increasingly difficult with engineering as a discipline, because we are quite fragmented, to have these big personalities.

`I don’t have any trite solutions to what has been a problem for a long time. But I do think we’ve got to find people who personify the industry.’

Engineering is unjustifiably seen as worthy but dull. `There’s a relatively recent term started to be used about engineers, rather derogatory: we’re referred to as the anoraks. Well, you can go and look in my wardrobe – I don’t possess an anorak,’ she laughs.

`I think the new Engineering Council has a big role to play in improving our image. I’m not of the view you can force the institutions to merge. Hence there is a role for the council to become the unified voice of engineering. But it needs the mechanicals and the other big institutions to guide the council.’

Liversidge, 47, took her degree at Aston in the late 1960s, then joined GKN as a trainee and stayed for three years. She moved to GW Thornton, a 95-strong forging company, as assistant technical manager. Working in a small firm, she says, was an eye-opener because `you see the results of your decisions very quickly’. Her duties included producing estimates for companies such as Rolls-Royce. `If it then came in as an order, I took my estimate and converted that into a die design for the die shop and wrote out the methods for the stamp shop and press shop. I tell you, it’s a salutary experience when you get down there and you’ve got a stamper, 6ft 5in with a strong Sheffield accent, telling you just what he thinks of your billet size and your method – that’s called very fast feedback!’

In her 15 years at G W Thornton she set up from scratch a precision forging division to produce compressor and turbine blades and the like over a period of five years – `quite a stretch for the company’, she recalls. After four years in strategic planning with East Midlands Electricity, in 1993 she set up Scientific Metal Powders with her husband. The company was recently sold to its largest customer, a US company. Liversidge and her husband now co-own Quest Investments, a holding company for Tool & Steel Products, a supplier of roof supports to the mining industry, and heavy machined fabricator Mandall Engineering.

As a member of the national coordinating committee of Women in Science and Engineering, Liversidge is actively involved in encouraging more women to enter the profession. Would it affect the nature or perception of engineering if more women were attracted to it? Given her ideas about health care, would there be emphasis on caring aspects of the discipline?

`I think the nature of the profession would change. I think that women do have somewhat different viewpoints. I certainly think that business is starting to accept that diversity is a benefit.

`I think that women bring an enormous amount of commitment. Those women engineers I’ve met work very hard. You don’t really have any option. You’re having to prove yourself so often that you just get used to the fact you’ve got to be that little bit harder working, you’ve got to be right more often and be sure of your facts.’

What has been the reaction among the institution establishment to her election? `I have been pleasantly surprised,’ she says. `The support and encouragement from all quarters has been so good I’m a bit overwhelmed by it.’

As it enters the next 150 years, how can the institution respond to the criticism that it is largely irrelevant to the bulk of its members?

`What the institution did 150 years ago is no longer relevant today and expecting people to trail down to attend meetings, conferences and seminars is inappropriate. That’s why we have a Web site and why we’ve spent quite a reasonable amount of money on making sure that all the [institution] staff are on e-mail.’ It’s also why she pushed through the establishment of a business centre as part of the refurbishment of the IMechE headquarters, so that members visiting London have somewhere to go to work, use the phone, or meet colleagues.

Nonetheless, Liversidge does believe that institution meetings are underrated as a way for engineers to network and update their knowledge. And she would like to commend July’s Visions of Tomorrow symposium. `It’s a special conference not only because it’s our 150th anniversary but just for once we’re actually talking about technology’s relevance to society and the benefits ordinary people get.’

What will make her count her year as president as a success?

`If I’m able to say the 150th anniversary events, like the symposium, have had good attendance and good publicity; if I’ve been able to put into place plans to take the institution into the new millennium building on the results of our members’ survey; if at the end of my term of office more people are saying “I’m proud to be a member”, then that’s real success.

`And if more people round the country know that we exist and that engineers are doing an awful lot to make their lives better I’ll have succeeded on a wider stage.’