To send the reader home for the weekend infused with the warm glow of righteousness, the gaze of the Futurescope is usually fixed on the wondrous future promised by a bold new area of innovation.
But a report published this week by the National Grid, claiming that engineering is an “invisible” industry that doesn’t appeal to young people has compelled us to contemplate a bleaker future: a world without engineers.
According to the report, based on around 1300 interviews with 14 – 19 year olds, there’s a worryingly high level of confusion about what engineers do, with many of those interviewed regarding it as dirty and even menial work. Worrying, although hardly surprising, stuff. But even to people who aren’t quite sure what engineers do, it’s perhaps too simplistic to imagine a world in which engineers never existed. You wouldn’t be reading this for a start. You’d possibly be sitting in a cold dark cave worrying about bears. Or, with the average human life lasting just 25 years, you might well be dead.
Perhaps then, it would be more salutary to imagine that the modern world, with all of its technological trappings, is – overnight – stripped of its engineers. Maybe they are instantly transplanted into a parallel existence where they succumbed to the lure of that career in the financial services industry. Or perhaps they’ve been spirited away by an alien race facing its own shortage of skilled personnel?
But if we ignore the frantic emergency calls from the relatives of car designers last seen hurtling skyward in the grip of a spaceship’s tractor beam how long would it be before anyone noticed their absence?
Ironically, it’s possible that thanks to the high levels of automation, autonomy and reliability developed by our engineers the slide into oblivion might not be quite as rapid as many would imagine. Our power stations would continue to operate without human intervention for days or weeks, renewable energy devices – designed to operate for months in the most unforgiving conditions – would continue to whirr away and the supply of gas to our homes, much of which is regulated by equipment and machinery that can happily operate for weeks without human intervention, would continue unabated.
Because of this – barring the daily inconveniences that would mount as our maintenance deprived cars, buildings and infrastructure ground to a halt – it probably wouldn’t be until a few weeks in that the disastrous implications of a world without engineers truly hits home. And only then, as the lights flicker out, the supermarket shelves lie empty, disease takes hold, and the staff of The Engineer magazine shuffle out of the office for the last time, will the value of this “invisible” industry truly sink in.
Jon Excell, Deputy Editor