Time to hire the hands-on help

A key finding of the Finniston inquiry into the engineering profession 18 years ago was that the system for educating and training engineers in the 1970s produced too many graduates whose only contact with engineering was calculating solutions to theoretical problems. Although there was a need for a high-flying cadre of engineers capable of leading […]

A key finding of the Finniston inquiry into the engineering profession 18 years ago was that the system for educating and training engineers in the 1970s produced too many graduates whose only contact with engineering was calculating solutions to theoretical problems.

Although there was a need for a high-flying cadre of engineers capable of leading the development of advanced technology, the main need of industry was for practically-orientated engineers, Sir Monty Finniston argued. He guessed that these engineers, whom he called ‘REng’, should be three times as numerous as the high-flying ‘REng (Diploma)’.

Finniston’s argument was lost. Employers told the recent Dearing committee of inquiry into higher education that, while they needed the pure scientists and engineers, they particularly, but unsuccessfully, sought ‘applied skills and people- management abilities’.

The Engineering Council’s Sartor (standards and routes to registration), launched last September, updated the regulations. But it also addressed this long-standing challenge to attract applied skills.

Massive educational changes inform the regulations. Well over 35% of school leavers are able to study for degrees more than double the number which entered university 10 years ago. Many of those who would have undertaken HNC or HND courses now have the opportunity to gain a degree.

However, despite Finniston and the work of the Engineering Council, chartered engineers are still four times as numerous as incorporated engineers on our register.

Unfortunately, even if employers wanted them, we could not train more chartered engineers from the current school-leaving population. The number of those taking A-levels in mathematics and the sciences between 1993 and 1997 was static or falling. Engineering courses are competing with pure science and numeric disciplines like accountancy, economics, geography and medicine for this falling number of numerate A-level students.

To satisfy demand for qualified engineers, many universities and further education colleges are converting school leavers with poor (or no) science or mathematics credentials into engineering undergraduates. This will broaden the next generation of graduate engineers, but many will not have the interest or skills to develop theoretical solutions to novel problems.

The new version of Sartor has strengthened the requirement for the incorporated engineer. It now comprises an accredited three-year degree (or a higher national with a one-year matching section) with an enhanced professional review to assess the practical skills that an intending incorporated engineer should have by the time he or she comes forward for registration.

Many vice-chancellors have realised that three-year degrees producing highly employable incorporated engineers, who can move quickly to professional registration without additional study, will be attractive to employers.

But the paradoxical attitude of industry remains a problem. Despite employers’ evidence to the Dearing committee, many say they recruit only chartered engineers. But when asked to describe the jobs and careers of their recruits they explain that most of them undertake hands-on application and knowhow-based activity. Only a small proportion are involved in advanced technology. The majority are incorporated engineers in all but name.

The Engineering Council is planning a campaign aimed at employers to explain what they are getting when they specify a registered engineer chartered, incorporated or engineering technician. It will explain the value of incorporated engineers and encourage more employers to recruit them.

The council is committed to promote the new incorporated engineer. It anticipates the incorporated engineer will be the most sought after professional engineer in the 21st century.

Andrew Ramsay is director of engineers’ regulation at the Engineering Council