The time is right to raise our profile

With the current focus on financial problems, there has never been a better time to raise awareness of engineering, says Paul Jackson

Is there still an issue, as is widely believed, with the general public knowing less about engineers than about other professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and bankers? And if so, how serious is the problem, and what can we do about it?

Actually the world has changed in the past few months, largely due to the recession and the fact that society has woken up to the idea that financial markets are not the be-all and end-all; the global economy must also be grounded in something tangible such as engineering. The current climate affords a real opportunity to put engineering at the top of the public agenda, but in order to do this we must first take stock of what people actually think about engineering.

According to research, the answer is mixed. Although society does, in the most-part, appreciate the role of engineers, it doesn’t entirely understand it. A report from the Engineering and Technology Board (ETB) and the Royal Academy of Engineering, reveals that eight out of 10 members of the public agreed that engineers are ‘well-respected’, ‘make a good contribution to society’ and generally ‘make people’s lives easier’, while another report finds that 66 per cent of the general public would recommend that their children or friends and family consider a career in engineering. Moreover, this general attitude does seem to be having some practical effect, not least in the news that over the past five years there has been a seven per cent increase in applications to engineering and technology university courses, compared to just 0.08 per cent in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects as a whole.

However, having said that there is a long way to go to when it comes to young people aged 19 and under, two out of three of whom recently professed to know ‘very little’ about engineering. So how do we at the ETB, tackle this crucial issue, and ensure that the young people coming through our schools, colleges and universities are aware of the rewarding and wide-ranging opportunities of engineering?

The answer is that we focus on three strands of work: The Big Bang Fair, improved promotion and communication of engineering, and strategic partnerships with schools and youth organisations. We must also work with partners and organisations across the community, including ECUK, education providers and the 36 professional engineering institutions to maximise the effectiveness of the engineering message, improving perceptions of engineering among young people and their influencers. And of course, we must research and evaluate all our activities to ensure they are working effectively.

Another key priority is The Big Bang Fair, the UK’s biggest annual celebration of science and engineering. Taking place over three days from 4-6 March this year, the Big Bang 2009 played host to 6,500 visitors, including politicians, journalists, engineering employers and — most importantly — young people.

Though project-led by the ETB, the reason the fair was so successful was that it pooled the resources of over 50 organisations from across the engineering community and beyond. With exhibits such as careers hotels, engineering challenges, and a high-profile national competition for UK Young Scientist and UK Young Technologist of the Year, The Big Bang Fair captivated the minds of almost 5,000 pupils and students, and will set out to captivate twice as many again next year when it rolls out in the Manchester Centre.

It is not all about large-scale engineering events however — important as these are. Raising awareness is also about a continuous drip, drip, drip approach. Which brings us to another ETB key priority: communication. The Big Bang 2010 will improve communication with the general public and young people alike by providing face-to-face contact with science and engineering, as well as forging links with regional fairs across the country, leading to exciting news stories in the local press, inspiring young people to take part. All of which activity will of course be backed up by online engineering careers resources such as

Promoting the role of engineers is also closely linked with promoting professional registration. As my colleague Andrew Ramsay at ECUK points out, the profile and status of engineering can only ever be as strong as those engineers who represent it. Therefore, in using registration to ensure high professional standards, the engineering profession increases its status and the respect with which people regard it. Registration requires membership of the professional engineering institutions, who provide the means to promote and disseminate positive images of engineers and engineering. Responsible professional engineers contribute greatly by participating in the work of these bodies.

So it is that our role at the ETB, and as engineers and supporters of engineering, is to go out into the wider world and communicate the crucial role engineering will play in meeting the social, environmental and economic challenges of the future.

Paul Jackson is chief executive of the Engineering and Technology Board