Where do engineers come from?

A short while ago I was heading off to London by train. It was rather packed and I was sat opposite an elderly lady and her young grandson. 

As we trundled along the sun briefly broke through the leaden sky and I proffered pleasantries regarding the weather – unimaginative I know, but it is the standard British social opening gambit.

Comments were soon made about North Wales, railways and engineering, and it transpired that she had been the first female fireman (firewoman / fireperson?) on both the Ffestiniog and Talyllynrailways. Obviously what had promised to be a soul destroying commute had suddenly changed into a fascinating conversation.

As the suburbs whizzed past the window I learnt that she had been led into an interest in engineering by joining her father in his garage whilst he made all sorts of curious and intriguing machines. Railways had come along early too with her even getting to ride on an A4 out of King’s Cross.

She’d married an engineer and with a seemingly equal predictability their son has gone on to do well for himself within our profession. Their journey that day was so that grandson could spend the weekend with his grandfather making a steam engine. All of which brought to mind another conversation held years ago with Mr S-E Senior.

Whilst talking through to the small hours one weekend we concluded that engineers are “born and not made.”  The basis for this was that once a certain maturity is reached you obviously have the potential to become an engineer or you definitely don’t. No-one joins our profession merely because they can think of nothing better to do.

As a theory for how things develop from the age of about 14 onwards I think this stands true, but how proto-engineers reach this point is more difficult. My father was an engineer on the railways and his father a railway driver. However, equally, I was exposed to the wondrous world of cars, trains and aircraft from an early age. Without having any sort of data it can only be speculation as to whether we share some genetic slew, or instead have been subjected to a common perfidious influence.

I would suggest that this may become more important as time passes. We are already facing a projected shortfall of engineers over the next 20 years. If genetics rule then perhaps a way of identifying this predisposition could be found, then more encouragement given early on to those who are likely to find a fulfilling career within engineering.

If, however, it is down to the exposure generally received during our formative years then alternatively a case can be made to fund school engineering clubs, provide trips to museums or even fund materials and components so that any child has the opportunity to start building things for themselves. Nature or nurture – our profession’s future could very well depend on our personal pasts.