Understanding what inspires the next generation will be key to solving skills gap

secret engineerOur anonymous blogger considers the challenge of attracting the next generation of engineers

I have previously made references to various high profile projects and engineering in the media, generally based around my own views and what I find interesting.

Such egocentric musings would probably be frowned upon in the wider world but, assuming these jottings actually have a remit, I am required to reflect the thoughts and feelings of “one of you.”

As such I must initially look to myself as a vaguely representative source of the raw data. Whether I actually count as “typical” regarding the members of our profession isn’t for me to say. Certainly, as one would expect, I do not speak for all. The advantage though is that it invokes debate and, I hope, interest.

Concorde: the iconic aircraft inspired the secret engineer to pursue an engineering career

Although I generally try to pick up on the topic-de-jour or reflect on a matter that has recently arisen at work, it is useful to try to fine tune the process with first hand feedback. Thus I lurk in the ethereal halls of The Engineer’s website and try to gauge the atmosphere. From this I have noted that there seems to be a sharp divide regarding inspiration for taking up engineering, not only for those of us already within the profession but also for what should be promoted to encourage the next generation.

This seems to be a reoccurring topic, although not directly addressed by me before. As with pay and status though – all the time it remains as a significant area of discontent it is difficult to avoid.

For the reasons given above, my start point has to be “what drew me into engineering?”, the answer being the Moon landings, Concorde, Thrust 2, the Space Shuttle, turbocharged F1 cars and so on. A historical hinterland of past exploits along similar lines reinforced this with, to my eyes, exotically dangerous and glamorous machines achieving great things in the hands of heroes and heroines. The high speed and high octane power excited from an early age and has never left.

There is the hope that one day I will be a part of a team that writes as large in the history books as those I idolise

I have been fortunate, given this, to have been involved in the design of various machines that have something of these qualities to them; although a large part of my career has been involved with the altogether more mundane.

That doesn’t matter though, as it is merely the hook and all the time I am able to work there is the hope that one day I will be a part of a team that writes as large in the history books as those I idolise. Through hard work and application, inspiration becomes realistic aspiration.

If I try to look wider from my own personal view (to pick a single example) I wonder if the current generation of I-phones inspire in the same way? I have never felt anything but cold ambivalence for such devices and even the many who get extraordinarily excited about them seem to be so purely because of size and application – rather than how it is achieved or the reality of the technical advance it represents.

Engineering is a calling and if we are to attract new blood then we need to understand what draws us into it

What too of the more philanthropic endeavours? I deeply admire and respect those who seek to bring water to the poorest areas of our world, or who devote their lives to improved prosthetics. In fact I would be immensely proud if I had any involvement in these or a thousand similar projects. The problem is, it just doesn’t excite me. As a child and adolescent I think I held the same view too.

Is any of this important? I think it is because if anything is to be done about the seemingly perennial problem of attracting teenagers, and especially young women, into engineering then a dialogue needs to be started. Hand wringing and bemoaning the state of our profession is fine but it achieves nothing. It is my firm belief that engineering is a calling and if we are to attract new blood then we need to understand what draws us into it. If the question is “what inspires people to be an engineer”, then surely the best person to answer is an engineer?