Steering clear of the political dog-fight

Rarely has the UK’s engineering and technology sector contemplated a year ahead with such uncertainty. Will market conditions worsen? Or does recovery beckon? And will whoever emerges victorious from the forthcoming general election deliver on the much-repeated political promise to put real engineering at the heart of a rebalanced economy?

In our in-depth report, Forward Thinking, we asked some of the leading figures from across the UK engineering sector for their views on the state of the industry, the role of engineers, and what help, if any, they’d like to see from government over the next 12 months. We think you’ll agree that their candid replies make interesting reading.

Many of the points raised are familiar: most of those interviewed agreed more should be spent on education and training at all levels of engineering, and there is much enthusiasm for the appointment of a technology ‘tsar’ to bring an engineer’s perspective to government thinking sooner on in the decision-making process.

Perhaps most eyebrow-raising, however, is the suggestion that, as is the case in Germany, the title of ‘engineer’ should be protected by law and that only chartered engineers should be allowed to use it.

With domestic boilers up and down the land battered into submission by the big freeze and our ice-covered roads littered with abandoned vehicles, it’s probably a bad time to risk upsetting plumbers and car mechanics, but these are just a few of the many professions that routinely and incorrectly describe themselves as engineers.

It may sound extreme – elitist even – but with engineers fulfilling at least as important a role in society as teachers or GPs, both of whom enjoy the status of a protected profession, there is a strong argument that such a move would help make the public more aware of its dependence on engineers.

But can reputation and status really be secured by legal measures? It may even be self-defeating to deny people the chance to identify themselves as engineers at a time when the profile of the profession needs every boost it can get.

There is ultimately no better advert for the role of engineers in society than to see grand, life-changing projects taking shape, generating wealth and enhancing our world. And it’s here, we would argue, that politicians have the biggest role to play. Not in championing one specific effort to curry favour and win votes, but in working with colleagues and opponents to secure cross-party consensus on the kind of important projects that will outlast any individual’s political career.

Big engineering projects must not become a political football, but in an election year – the equivalent of a relegation dog-fight – that may be too much to ask for.

To have your say on whether or not “engineers” should become a protected species, take part in our online poll.