Engineering is at a turning point. The arguments remain the same: about engineers’ status, pay, and qualifications; about a dearth of talented graduates to enter the profession; about the slump in student numbers taking science at school. But with a change in political climate, solutions to these problems now seem more achievable.
The Government is pushing its vision of a ‘knowledge-driven economy’; science minister John Battle has pledged funding for an image campaign and challenged engineers to back it; and the new Sartor standards, which control who gets to be an engineer, are about to shake up qualifications.
Factors such as this are combining to present the best opportunity for decades to improve engineers’ standing in society. All eyes will now be on the Engineering Council, under new chairman Dr Robert Hawley, to see if it can drive the profession forward.
Alan Rudge, Hawley’s predecessor, has won plaudits for his chairmanship during the formative first three years of the reconstituted council’s existence. Over the next three years, Hawley has the opportunity to build on this inheritance and turn the council into a more effective voice for the profession.
‘Alan Rudge left a very good legacy,’ acknowledges Hawley, who took up the chairmanship last month. ‘There’s still a way to go but the foundations are all there. Relations with the Government are in pretty good shape. It recognises the need for wealth-creating industries and the importance of the engineering profession. The relationships with the individual institutions when you’ve got 38 partners can get a bit tricky at times, and we’ll be doing more to strengthen those relationships. But all in all, everything is ready for a big step forward.’
The council won a valuable morale boost from John Battle’s endorsement of it as the main channel of communication between the Government, or the Department of Trade and Industry, and the profession. Though this was meant to be its role when the council was set up in 1981, there has been resentment by engineering institutions that it has been usurping their duties, which has weakened its lobbying position.
Hawley says: ‘The consensus is that there is a great need for the Engineering Council to represent the total profession. It needs to do as much as it possibly can to strengthen understanding of the need for a high-quality engineering base in the UK.
‘The institutions should understand that we’re not trying to encroach on their specialities. We are a co-ordinating body dedicated to improving the standards and image of engineering across the profession. We’re talking about not just chartered engineers but incorporated engineers, the whole profession from top to bottom.
‘I’ve no objection whatsoever to the electricals, the chemicals or any other institution going to the Government on their own specialised topics. But I would like to know, so that if we can assist we will. But I’ve said to the Government: If you want us to be one channel of communication for the profession, make sure you use one channel of communication back to us. ‘
Like Rudge, Hawley has experience of the institutions: both are former presidents of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. Like Rudge, Hawley also led a big utility: Rudge was deputy chief executive of BT while Hawley was chief executive of nuclear generator British Energy and also chairs a research council.
The Engineering Council, Hawley says, is well placed to capitalise on the new spirit in government. ‘This Government recognises the need for wealth-creating industries and the knowledge-based economy,’ he says. ‘It wants to maintain a dialogue through officials and ministers.
A top priority for Hawley will be the the shakeup of engineering qualifications under which intake of new engineers will be tweaked to create large numbers of incorporated rather than chartered engineers. ‘One of the objectives on my list of things I wanted to achieve, which I wrote before I even took the job, was to promote that part of the profession very strongly.’
On engineers’ status, Hawley endorses Battle’s view that engineers ‘are not going to get anywhere by whingeing’. He sees grounds for hoping for improvement: ‘It’s a plain fact that in the FTSE 100 companies engineers outnumber accountants’ in top executive positions (by 17 to 15, with a total of 162 directorships held by engineers).
‘Salaries are going up,’ he adds: chartered engineers on average earn considerably more than solicitors and accountants, according to Engineering Council/Office for National Statistics figures. ‘If we have our way and improve the quality of people going into engineering and get the need for wealth-creating industries fully understood it will be a self-rectifying situation.’
That leaves the problem of getting this message across to the public, which is often oblivious to the engineering that goes into almost every product and service. Hawley has not been involved in the proposed Engineering Employers’ Federation/Engineering and Marine Training Authority/Quinco ad campaign, but says: ‘If it emphasises the high quality of British engineering then I’d be very supportive of that.’
There is a wider issue too, he argues, that a general lack of understanding of science means informed debate about topics such as nuclear energy or genetically modified food is drowned out by media ‘scaremongering’.
‘The nuclear industry suffered greatly by combating the ill-founded but emotive arguments of a streetwise anti-nuclear lobby with factual responses that were simply impenetrable to most people,’ he says.
‘A more imaginative approach to selling science and a massive change in our education system at all levels is necessary to redress this balance,’ he believes.