Tools of the trade

Features editor

Visiting the Institution of Civil Engineers yesterday, I found the new president, Peter Hansford, settling into his new office and assembling the accoutrements of his presidency year. Naturally, he was very keen to point out his portrait, which has just been hung in the space reserved for presidential portraits, directly opposite the reception desk.

It’s pretty rare these days to be immortalised in oils, and Hansford was very keen to be represented in the position of which he is most proud — that of a working engineer. ‘I’m sitting at my desk with the tools of my trade; that is, the tool I use most often, which I can’t be without,’ he told me. Having a good look at the picture on my way out of the building, it transpires that the tool in question — the one which Hansford thinks is vital for a senior engineer — is a smartphone, in Hansford’s case (and, in fact, mine as well) the one with an i in its name.

We talk a lot at Engineer Towers about what engineers do, and it’s a perennial subject in the magazine and online: the role of an engineer is not what the general public think it is. But it’s such a pervasive issue that we’re not apologetic about bringing it up. The UK might be unusual in that the term ‘engineer’ is used — and used correctly — to describe the person in overalls with the toolbox who comes around to fix your washing machine, the people who designed the current distribution of the electric motor that drives it, and the people with the soldering irons who put it together. The problem is, to the public, it’s the former who generally comes to mind first.

That has real and serious effects about the standing of engineers. To most people, the vital tool of an engineer isn’t an iPhone. It’s a spanner. This is certainly an issue when it comes to attracting people into engineering as a career — most parents, and indeed many teachers, don’t point creative, technology-minded pupils with an interest in society towards engineering, because they don’t appreciate what the career entails.

It’s a problem which we have on The Engineer as well, to an extent. We’re journalists, but the label ‘journalist’ has different connotations. It can cover the dashing foreign correspondents, flak-jacketed in a jeep on the way to the latest war zone. It could be the crumple-suited hack, doggedly taking notes in the local court and trying to get quotes out of reluctant policemen. It could be the hard-bitten gossip hound, frantically fabricating scurrilous scandal about soap stars and footballers. Or it could be us, combing through research papers and talking to universities and industry to find and report on the trends that dictate how we interact with technology now and in the future. And naturally, we don’t like to be mistaken for tabloid merchants.

That’s why, when I’m asked what I do, I say that I’m a science and technology writer. It might be a slight betrayal of the noble calling of journalist (and yes, it is noble and I’ll fight anyone who says it isn’t), but I prefer to be known for what I do, rather than labelled. Perhaps that’s something that engineers could do too. Say you design medical devices. Say you work on jet engines. Say you make buildings stand up to earthquakes. And then say you’re an engineer. Put a specific to the label, and a face to the profession, and use your iPhone — or your spanner — with pride.