Protected species

On January 10 The Engineer ran an online poll that asked ‘Would legal protection for the job title “engineer” help improve the status of the profession?’. Over 700 of you voted, with 82.9 per cent saying it would.

In posing the question, The Engineer considered whether legal protection would help make the public more aware of its dependence on engineers or be self-defeating, denying people the chance to identify themselves as engineers.

From the outset it would seem the very word ‘engineer’ is lost to the very people who define themselves as such.

Speaking to The Engineer, Engineering Council CEO Andrew Ramsay and IET Chief Executive Nigel Fine were unequivocal in their appraisal of the term: both agree that ‘engineer’ is in common use and it is not possible to protect it.

‘Our legal advisors tell us because its been used so broadly and widely that it is difficult to recapture and reserve the title for people that are professionally qualified,’ said Ramsay.

‘This leads us to ask: what title could be legally protected? The titles we award are legally protected; they are effectively trademarks through the agency of the charter that we have,’ he added. ‘We pursue the protection of these titles because if people pass themselves off, particularly as a Chartered Engineer, then we pursue them through the courts and generally succeed.’

I would be dismayed if such a legislation removed my right to the title of Engineer that I earned at university, and continue to earn each day of my working life.

Statutory protection and registration for engineers raises issues regarding self-governance for engineering bodies and the possibility of being over prescriptive, a situation that has led to a skills shortfall in Canada where engineers (and members of other professions) have to be registered. To accommodate suitably skilled immigrant engineers, the Canadian government passed the 2006 Fair Access to Regulated Professions Act to help internationally trained professionals find suitable employment in their chosen field.

Back in the UK, respondents to our online poll sounded warnings of elitism.

‘If you are going to set the bar as high as Chartered Engineer, before you can call yourself an engineer, this will lose the support of thousands of us actual engineers,’ wrote Wendy Bourne. ‘I have worked as a Design Engineer for 11 years, and a Technical Support Engineer for five. My job role and responsibilities qualify me for a membership to an institute, and could get Chartered status – if I had the time to spend on the paperwork and the money to maintain my membership. I would be dismayed if such a legislation removed my right to the title of Engineer that I earned at university, and continue to earn each day of my working life.’

Regulation -v- self-governance

Arguments regarding statutory protection and self governance have existed in the UK for a number of years, notably in the legal and health professions. With the later, nurses and radiographers, as well as doctors, are subject to statutory registration in order to practise in the NHS.

‘What has increasingly happened is the control of the profession –  namely codes of conduct, disciplinary action, and professional development – have become subject to ministerial direction, or at least departmental direction by the government and out of the hands of the profession itself. Talking to many of these senior professionals they do not see this as a good thing,’ said Ramsay.

Ramsay stressed that learned societies are concerned about falling membership as people in other professions are paying substantial fees in order to stay registered with the government sponsored body.

‘They understandably decide that belonging to a learned society, which doesn’t effect whether or not they have a job, is not as important. Thus membership has dropped rapidly, which in turn increases the costs for those who retain membership,’ he said.

Nigel Fine believes a simpler route would involve the government more fully recognising the professional registration categories of Chartered Engineer, Incorporated Engineer, Engineering Technician and ICT Technician and promoting the value of professional registration.

The argument shouldn’t be about what people call themselves but about how you make the general public (and the government) aware the importance of the engineering profession to the future prosperity of the UK.

‘We would suggest that it should be a mandatory requirement for all engineers working in the civil service to be professionally registered,’ he said. ‘Industry should be encouraged to better recognise the value of professional registration, perhaps by government and others mandating professional registration as evidence of competence in contract proposals.’

With talk of legal protection for engineers seemingly swamped in semantic and regulatory arguments, perhaps the last word should go to Ed, a reader who posted this pertinent comment: ‘The argument shouldn’t be about what people call themselves but about how you make the general public (and the government) aware the importance of the engineering profession to the future prosperity of the UK.’

Discussions surrounding Engineers and professional titles have been raging for decades

Presented here are extracts from Thomas Telford’s letter of acceptance of the office of first President of the Institution of Civil Engineers (1820)

“….It is unnecessary to remark to you on the business of an Engineer; all admit the difficulties of it, and the indefinite character of it; and that by the want of definition its respectability is less than its due, that public confidence which is indispensable is much weakened by the presumption of unskilful and illiterate persons taking upon themselves the name.”

“….The diversity of subjects which come within the province of an engineer, rendering more than genius and individual observation necessary to mature his judgement; it can rarely occur that one man meets with sufficient varied and fit subjects during his early practice, to entitle him to confidence in all undertakings which may fall to his lot…”

“…..To facilitate the acquirement of knowledge in engineering; to circumscribe the profession; to establish it the respectability which it merits; and to increase that indispensable public confidence, are the objects of the Institution of Civil Engineers.”