What’s in a name for engineering?

In an attempt to reverse the decline in the profession, the Engineering Council is to undergo a rebranding, emerging under a new, technological banner.

After seeing so many companies go through a rebranding exercise and come up with a meaningless latinate name (such as Accenture, or Consignia, or even Corus) it is almost refreshing to see a new launch which completely bucks the trend.

Faced with a complete transformation into a very different kind of organisation, the Engineering Council may have been tempted to become Galileo, perhaps, or Entekios, or Technolog. But no. Instead, we have the launch of the new Engineering & Technology Board. A name that really does do exactly what it says on the tin. It’s about engineering. And technology. And there is a board somewhere in all this too.

Unfortunately, after last week’s launch of the new E&TB by science minister Lord Sainsbury, there is little very else that is known about what this new board is, or how it will operate when it goes live in October. It’s not that all this is shrouded in secrecy. The truth is, many of those involved at the highest level don’t know yet either.

The reason the Engineering Council is being changed into the E&TB is to create a new organisation that will go much further in reversing the decline in numbers entering the technology professions in the UK — as well as making sure that those who are in the profession have the relevant skills.

Policy plans

This means not just wringing hands over the problem, but going to the government with carefully thought-out plans for doing something about it. That in turn implies policy recommendations that will work, and which are accepted by those who have to implement them. ‘In effect, this is a last chance to get engineering back on the right track,’ said Michael Kipp, engineering director at BAE Systems.

To make this happen in practice, the new E&TB will include representatives from industry, education and training at the heart of its policy making, and thoroughly modernise how it makes decisions.

This will be long overdue. At the moment, the Engineering Council has to get agreement from its sometimes unruly ‘Senate’ of 50 volunteers (many of whom represent the 37 professional institutions affiliated to the Council) before coming up with policy. Then, only when it has got agreement, it mustconsult with business, universities, and other training organisations to check whether that policy is relevant or viable. Often it is not. This clunky approach is also open to being hijacked by political in-fighting among the institutions, who have often found it virtually impossible to work together.

‘Our track record has been appalling, disgraceful,’ said Alastair MacDonald, president of the British Computer Society, on the lack of co-operation that has dogged such collective actions. MacDonald is charged with getting the structure of the new organisation off the ground: ‘The challenge now is to work out how our organisations are going to be represented in a grown-up way,’ he said.

So far, though, little is known about the details, and a series of working groups, headed by MacDonald and others, will be getting on to this over the coming weeks. The aim is to concentrate policy-making within a new board of around 15 people, drawn from business and industry, the universities, training organisation and the professional institutions.

To give the policy recommendations the widest possible relevance, the remit of the group is to be widened to cover all the technology-led sectors (perhaps representing up to two million people), rather than just engineering in its narrower sense. Hence the new name, bringing in the word ‘technology’ as well as engineering.

Beyond these basic facts, though, there is a great deal of fine detail to be agreed. The 37 institutions will only have around three seats on the new board, so will need to act fast to decide how they are going to be represented.

On the financial front, there is also a challenge. The new group wants to be able to speak for the estimated two million people, many, but not all, of whom are engineers, and who work in technology jobs in the UK. However, actually linking these people in some way with the E&TB is another matter.

For now, people will only be eligible to become members via their professional institutions, in a similar set-up to the current Engineering Council. But in many companies, professional institutions are ignored. ‘They are just not relevant to my staff,’ said Richard Parris, managing director of software group Intercede. So the question is how to draw such people into the E&TB. And should they pay for the privilege, or be subsidised by the fee-paying minority of ‘registered’ engineers?

Even at this early stage, chartered engineers have been quick to voice fears that the new group will open its doors too readily to new members, and dilute the value of the Chartered Engineer status. Dennis Plowright, a retired fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said the changes meant that ‘engineering as a unique profession will disappear, swallowed up in a miscellaneous heap of disciplines having markedly differing academic levels and bearing a non-engineering title. Is this what engineers want?’

Market awareness

E&TB officials say that is unlikely to happen, because the role of regulating the standards of the engineering profession will remain. This gatekeeping role could become the remit of a ‘son of the Engineering Council,’ according to Robert Hawley, Engineering Council chairman.

In fact, to this end the institutions could find themselves with more autonomy than before, as the E&TB divests itself of this responsibility to focus on the broader issues. But if they look set to bury old differences and try to make this work — it’s probably because they have little choice.

‘It’s down to hard-nosed commercial reality,’ said one insider. The market is changing, and the institutions are facing falling memberships. The key factor is the need to become more relevant. There’s a feeling that if institutions don’t do something now, they’re dead.’