Model for a profession

What is an engineer? That is a big question to start 2008 but it is one that Chris Wise, creator of landmark structures such as London’s Millennium Bridge, is keen to address in this issue’s Interview.

Wise’s views are certainly thought-provoking and boil down to this; many people who think of themselves as engineers are not engineers at all — they are scientists, concerned mainly with observation and analysis.

‘Real engineers’ are creative, they are designers, they are artists, and should be seen as such by the wider world and given the credit they deserve.

Readers can make up their own minds about Wise’s singular philosophy and no doubt more than a few will take issue with what he says, but the debate is an important and worthwhile one.

The impact of what can broadly be termed the recruitment crisis facing engineering is well documented.

Fewer school students are choosing the types of subjects that can lead to careers in engineering. Fewer of the school leavers who have the appropriate qualifications are choosing to use them to get jobs in engineering or study the subject at university. And even many of those who do enrol for engineering degrees are voting with their feet and using their qualifications to begin careers in finance or business instead.

It has become common to suggest that young people are put off engineering-based subjects because they are seen as too difficult and the rewards — whether financial or in terms of recognition and job satisfaction — too scant to be worth the effort.

Wise agrees that people are being put off because, in his words, ‘they think they are being asked to be scientists’.

In his view this emphasis on rigorous scientific training is all rather old-fashioned, and should not hinder the talented, creative and inspired ‘real engineers’ from pursuing their destiny.

On the part of The Engineer, we are not at all sure about that. Where we do find common ground with Wise is in his desire to return the vision and inspiration to the engineer’s role.

He rightly identifies the fact that many of the great engineers of the past were revered for their ability to solve the big problems facing society and the profession’s status was enhanced accordingly.

Wise hopes to use his position as newly-appointed master of the Royal Designers for Industry to put some of that inspirational magic back into contemporary engineering.

That would certainly be welcome. In our view, however, it would be wrong to downplay the importance of the basic scientific and analytical skills that many engineers need to do their jobs effectively.

Why can’t engineers be the whole package? Scientist, artist, designer and visionary doesn’t sound like a bad recipe for a profession to win the admiration and respect it deserves.

Andrew Lee, editor