We must blow our own trumpets

Engineers must do more to promote themselves and their profession to educate young people about this important and fascinating discipline, writes Ian Ling.

For centuries the engineer has been the backbone of society and the means by which the world has progressed and developed.

Artist Leonardo DaVinci was valued as an engineer during his lifetime and conceived ideas vastly ahead of his own time, conceptually inventing a helicopter, a tank, the use of concentrated solar power, the double hull, and many others. In 1499 he devised a system of moveable barricades to protect Venice from attack. He also had a scheme for diverting the flow of the Arno River in order to flood Pisa.

From the 18th century and into the 19th century came the Industrial Revolution and such names as James Hargreaves, Richard Arkwright, James Watt, George Stephenson, Thomas Telford, Isambard Brunel, Nicholas Otto, Joseph Whitworth and others.

In the first half of the 20th century we had Sidney Camm, R J Mitchell, Nigel Gresley and Frank Whittle, but none of note in the latter half.

Now, in the 21st century, do people recognise the names of engineers and appreciate that without them life as we know it would collapse? I think not.

Architects such as Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and others are known ‘names’. But while they may have conceived the architectural design of bridges and buildings, it is engineers who have brought them to fruition with structural, construction, mechanical and electrical services and the whole range of engineering disciplines. And it is engineers that operate and maintain them.

Left in the dark

Does society know what an engineer is or does? Does it realise how much it depends on them? The answer is no. The public does not know how much of today’s way of life is delivered by the engineering community.

So society is left in the dark as to the importance of the engineer in today’s world. This is because they are working in teams and there is no outstanding name on the front page of the newspapers. We engineers fail to blow our own trumpets — we just get on with the job.

If society is not aware of us, how is it going to ensure that the next generation will produce the engineers it needs to survive?

From the 1790s through to the 1820s, the British government tried to maintain the country’s industrial leadership by banning the emigration of artisans and mechanics alongside the exportation of technical drawings and machinery. The attempt was unsuccessful: the ban was continually violated and was repealed in 1824.

However, unless we recognise that today’s engineers are going unnoticed and take steps to promote the profession, we are in danger of having no one to ban from emigrating.

With the cessation of the training boards and the ending of many apprenticeship schemes as manufacturing tried to cut costs, fewer people were exposed to the idea of engineering as a career.

It is interesting to note that Lord Leitch, in his review of skills, has hinted that there may, in the long term, be some form of return to a system of ‘levy/grant’ funding to ensure increased employer engagement and investment in skills.

Easier courses

Further, the target for 50 per cent university entry led to the development of degree courses in other subjects that were perceived as being easier than the rigorous science and engineering disciplines.

Only now are we beginning to see the re-emergence of modern apprenticeships and the universities providing a wider range of engineering courses leading to degrees.

But today’s students have to be made aware of what engineering is and what it has to offer in terms of excitement and job satisfaction and the breadth and depth of the discipline, or they will not choose to pursue the courses.

We have to ensure we are known and that our values are appreciated. We are a profession that is ever there and offers a career that affects many aspects of today’s life. But unless we are known to exist and provide the careers for the youth of today, there will be no tomorrow for all to enjoy the benefits that come from the hands and minds of engineers.

We must sell ourselves and ensure there is a steady flow into our profession. We must make sure that today’s young people see engineering as a rewarding and satisfying career.

Recognition of the true value of the engineer can only come if we are outspoken in our contribution to society. We have to ensure that the public realises and appreciates its dependence on engineers and that today’s students see engineering as a career that offers satisfaction and reward.

Edited extracts of speech by Ian Ling, president of the Society of Operations Engineers