This is engineering: changing the image of our profession among teens  

Jo Trigg, Associate Director Communications and Partnerships at the Royal Academy of Engineering explains how a new campaign is seeking to recast the image of engineering for young people.

If you search for the word ‘engineer’ in Google images, you are met by a sea of hard hats and hi-vis jackets. There are plenty of clipboards, plans, blueprints, and an awful lot of people pointing. Where the image lacks a hard hat, it will probably make up for it with a white lab coat, or electronics equipment. On the plus side, the engineers are typically smiling, and often outside in the sunshine.

Image problem: a google search for “engineer” uncovers a plethora of hard hats

Search for ‘engineering’ and you don’t fare much better. Technical drawings and gears predominate. On occasion a building, bridge or engine makes an appearance. People rarely feature. It is little wonder that media outlets – particularly in an environment where they have to produce more and more news content with fewer people – rarely carry inspiring images of engineers and engineering, and, worse still, report on ground-breaking engineering achievements without even mentioning the word ‘engineering’.

The IET recently conducted research into what schoolchildren think a ‘typical’ engineer looks like. Of a representative sample aged 9 to 16, 44% imagined that they would don a hard hat, and 40% thought they’d wear a hi-vis jacket. 67% said that in their mind a typical engineer is male, and 51% thought they would be white. We know from our own research that young people are put off engineering by images of hard hats, white coats, and people working alone, whereas images of cutting edge technology, teamwork and creativity are much more appealing.

this is engineering
This is Engineering campaign is aimed at helping engineering resonate with young people

I don’t need to tell you how concerning this is, or go over the well-documented skills gap statistics that tell us why we need to change the opinion of young people. A lot of very good research has been undertaken to raise awareness and understanding of the challenge. And a lot of good work is delivered by a variety of organisations to engage young people with engineering right across the UK. At the last count, for an Academy report published in May 2016, over 600 organisations were found to be involved in supporting engineering or STEM education more broadly.

While this is great, and more initiatives mean more young people are likely to engage directly with engineering in a way that is relevant to them and their day-to-day environment, many have argued that a lack of coordination and consistency in messaging has limited the impact of these messages. I’d agree with earlier contributors to this series that local and personal engagement is good, and meaningful. But to give as many young people as possible the opportunity to see that engineering – a career that is well-paid, fulfilling and in-demand – could be for them, we also need scale and a shared voice, so that they encounter the same messages repeatedly. Because only consistent and regular messaging will stick.

We have an incredible opportunity. Engineering is broad, varied and, for the most part, a very tangible thing

Media consumption, particularly among young people, is increasingly dominated by images and videos. Early last year YouTube released statistics that showed that one billion hours of video are watched on its platform every day. Video is currently the form of digital content that prompts the most engagement, and predictions are that appetite for it will increase. Cisco estimates that 75% of the world’s mobile data traffic will be video by 2020. At the same time, the increasing sophistication of social media platforms and their advertising models means that, with advertising spend, you can choose specifically who you reach with your content, making both scale and personalisation possible, at the same time.

We have an incredible opportunity. Engineering is broad, varied and, for the most part, a very tangible thing. This is a great basis for a suite of striking films and images for social and digital media that is better and more representative than what currently exists. At the Academy we have set out to take up this opportunity by launching a multi-year digital advertising and marketing campaign on  24th January to recast the image of engineering for young people. Called This is Engineering, it will use short-form video and eye-catching images to reach teenagers – aged 13-18 – on social media.

Engineers are great problem solvers, but with This is Engineering we are taking a marketing approach to tackling the skills challenge. We have analysed the existing research and commissioned additional studies to answer specific questions about what will inspire teenagers to explore engineering. We have collaborated with advertising and PR experts to help shape our approach.

this is engineering

Importantly, we are starting where the teenagers are, on their favoured social and digital media platforms, and with the subjects they are already interested in, demonstrating to them how engineering is behind the things they love and are interested in – sport, music, film, tech, fashion, gaming. And we are telling this story through real young engineers, realistic role models that teens from all backgrounds can identify with. Early indications of effectiveness are good: pre-launch testing of the video adverts showed that after watching them consideration of engineering among teens rose by 69%, and by 142% among females.

It’s also important to us that we don’t reinvent the wheel. Our campaign is not designed to duplicate or replace good work already underway. We’ve set out to plug a gap, to give real scale to messages that resonate with young people through digital advertising. And we’re doing it for the whole profession: the campaign originated as a response to a letter written to The Times by seven major engineering companies, calling on the Academy to ‘market the dream’ of engineering to the next generation. We will make all the This is Engineering content available to the whole profession to use, whether that’s on social and digital media, or at events and presentations. Behind the scenes, we will be using this to kick-start the development of a new image library for the profession and – in time we hope – media and the general public.

What makes this an even more unmissable opportunity is that 2018 has been designated by the government as the Year of Engineering, a year that will bring together engineering organisations across the country to encourage the public to take a closer look at engineering. This collective awareness raising is a perfect backdrop to This is Engineering and will act as a catalyst for the sustained pan-profession energy and coordination it needs to meet its ambitions, and transform the public image of our dynamic, fulfilling, future-shaping profession. We’d encourage you to join us.

For further information and to find out how to get involved please see www.ThisisEngineering.org.uk, @ThisIsEng or email contact@thisisengineering.org.uk