How to Change a Perception

Posted on 18 Apr 2014

It is the intractable problem that refuses to go away. Engineering is in demand, intellectually rewarding and it is well paid but not enough people are doing it. Will Stirling reports on a new approach.

The stakes are high. EngineeringUK, organisers of the impressive Big Bang Fair, which enraptured my nine-year old daughter and her friend this year, says that the UK is producing 51,000 engineers a year but industry needs 87,000 engineers to meet projected demand.

UCAS in January recorded about 127,000 applications in 2013 to study engineering at university, up 8.4% on 2012, the second highest rise after computer sciences. It’s not the supply of these qualifications, rather their supply into the jobs that need them.

Philosophers will relish the challenge given to PR firm Luther Pendragon by the ERA Foundation: work out how to make engineering a more attractive profession. Is it possible to manipulate the perception of an entire sector – engineering – using communications and marketing, in the same way that washing powder can be?

Engineering is what it is; it is broad, it requires high levels of mathematics, it is difficult, it is problem-solving, it is dominated by men. Fact: some engineers actually wear hard hats and high vis jackets, a point seen as a negative stereotype. Does the barrister’s absurd wig and gown put law students off?

But, yes, good communications can revive a defunct image that does not do justice to the profession.

Credit to the ERA Foundation, an organisation that funds projects to improve the engineering sector, for commissioning a public relations consultancy with this task.

Many in industry acknowledge that, in the 10 or more years that this problem has been actively analysed and attacked, the professional engineering institutes’ efforts have not reduced the shortfall significantly. An agnostic perspective, free from the baggage of institutional politics that will assess engineering communications in a cold light, is a good approach.

Luther Pendragon (LP) itself says “We have not been hamstrung or exhausted by living with this problem for decades and have therefore been able to bring an external, fresh and open approach to the subject.” Hear hear.

So what did the 40-page report say and will it make a difference?

Many in industry will have heard much of the findings before – the problem is not new. But perhaps LP expressed the key issues in a more novel way. The report highlights key points such as the paucity of careers advice, engineers as bad communicators and self-publicists, and political and social neglect of the importance of the profession.

The report experimented with the format of the communication. Discovering that engineers were lauded in the military, it was amusing that the authors considered the rallying cry, “Your Country Needs You!” approach to recruitment that has been so heavily imitated elsewhere, until deciding this was contrived.

Parents, teachers, women, school children – all these vital demographics are complicit in both the problem and the solution. LP made a key recommendation to widen the reach of engagement strategies to reach the key influencers, parents and teachers, not only children.

Involving teachers is the very raison d’etre for existing programmes like the excellent Primary Engineer run by Susan Scurlock and Scarborough Engineering Week run by Unison, makers of tube bending machines.

On existing engagement activities, the report made the point not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. “Manage and enhance existing engagement activities: audit existing initiatives and objectively assess their effectiveness.”

Bravo. I recall asking Vince Cable MP at the launch of the government’s See Inside Manufacturing campaign why it chose to launch a new engagement programme, with no clear plan of tracking the outcomes, instead of spending the money on measuring the existing activities, of which there are hundreds. No, another new activity was necessary, and this one really will inspire the next generation!

The old, tired, issue of the value of the word ‘engineer’ was covered; should a tumble drier repair person be allowed to usurp the title engineer? “In Germany you would never find the man who come sto fix your boiler calling himself an engineer!” one D&T teacher was quoted here.

Wisely, LP concluded that even if the establishment wanted to restrict the title Engineer to qualified and chartered engineers, who would police this? What penalty would be placed on a heating engineer for cribbing the name on to his van?

Money was a key point, so often neglected in this debate. The average starting salary of an engineering and technical graduate is 15.7% more than that for all graduates, the report says.

Let’s celebrate the money you can earn as a professional engineer, and the senior director level jobs it can lead to. At what point in their education would a young person make a link between an engineering degree and a board directorship? Entrepreneurial engineers that start and sell (and buy) companies and become rich should be discussed without embarrassment. More of these stories should be publicised, linking engineering with invention, success and wealth.

The role of schools, the lack of female engineers, the lack of visible champions and role models, the necessity of engineering for society: all were discussed. Female engineers were said to often leave the profession due to the “lack of positive role models above them and an environment which they felt was “hostile” and “unwelcoming.”

What did the report miss?

Other countries facing the same issue were referenced but en passant. LP acknowledged that the US and European countries had the same problem as the UK; Germany is short of about 220,000 workers in what is known there as the MINT disciplines – maths, computer sciences, natural sciences and technology.

What are Germany and South Korea’s specific problems, and are they also using a communications strategy to fix it? Or are they approaching it at the grass roots, education level?

The report did not ask why market forces were not plugging the gap more swiftly.

There is a bigger demand for engineering jobs in the UK now than in the 1990s and 2000s (discuss) partly because of the number of big infrastructure investments like HS2 due in the UK, which were deferred in the recession, the increase in renewable energy, new nuclear, and foreign direct investment in manufacturing from companies like Tata into Jaguar Land Rover, Siemens’ new £160 turbine blade factory, etc. The economy is growing. With all this activity, will market forces achieve more than we think?

Some assertions were dubious.

Under ‘Political and social neglect’, the report says “… when talking to teachers, young people and parents, engineering has fallen well behind finance and law when they are asked to consider the aspirational nature of these professions.”

Really? In 2014, more parents and teachers would say banking is more aspirational than engineering, after a five-year recession caused by investment bankers and a huge number of advertised engineering projects and jobs?

I can’t dispute LP’s survey but how many teachers and parents did they canvas on this point, and in what parts of the country? Ask parents in Sheffield or Derby what an “aspirational” career is, you will get a very different answer from a parent in Henley.

In its Recommendations, the report says “Stop alienating people from engineering by allowing untrained and uninspiring speakers to address target audiences.”

Tricky one. If an engineering ambassador is dull, no amount of ‘training’ will bring him or her to life. Therefore perhaps it means that the ambassadors should be more inspiring people in the first place, effervescent characters like Dr Adam Hart or Brompton Bicycle’s Will Butler-Adams. Sadly you cannot cherry-pick your speakers from a limitless pool; which returns to whether you can improve a mediocre speaker’s communication powers? I don’t know that you can. William Hague will never host a chat show.

“Engineers have been allowed to become invisible to wider society”. How many professions, truly, are visible to wider society? Does a school child, an average teacher or a civil servant know any more about the nature of work of a management consultant, logistics professional or actuary than an engineer? In terms of (in)visibility across careers, engineering is not special.

I liked the range of recommendations, the admission there is no panacea, and that a unified approach from all stakeholders is necessary (good luck). Passing it to the comms experts is a better, more progressive remedy than batting the ball between groups of grey men in SW1.

Education, education, engineering

Fundamentally, one is left wondering if something as… fundamental… as engineering should need a communications strategy, or rather a rebooting of the way children are taught, so that school lessons are much more career-centric?

PR, advertising, marketing, websites, films = effective tools, but all designed to persuade people to do something different, such as buy a product. A more powerful force is to provide information for kids so they make the choice consciously on merit in the first place.

To be fair, LP’s report refers to better career advice, a big component of the communications strategy. But there was not enough in the Recommendations section on education / vocational reform and primary schools, for my money.

It’s a tough one, as a large swathe of the education sector believes that a child’s education – a fairly short window of 11 years – should focus entirely on the core academic subjects and learning for learning’s sake, leaving jobs and careers until a later stage in their lives when they “are ready”.

The big engineering skills shortfall lobby, such as EngineeringUK, the EPSRC and Royal Academy, argue that by 16-years it is too late; kids have selected their GCSEs and that critical decision about what they can or can’t study and train in – for the rest of their lives – has been made.

This is the rationale for the University Technical Colleges, which integrate business into the curriculum from age 14. The JCB Academy got 99% grades A* to C in English and maths in its first GCSE year. They could have been mentioned.

The breadth of engineering disciplines today is staggering – this choice alone, one feels, should over time inspire more people into the profession. True, these need to be presented to kids in a better way. School seems the best place.

Look at a field like industrial automation. In the near future we will need people who don’t just design components mechanically and electrically for factory operations, we will need IT engineering experts to write code that allows a Profinet protocol in a production control system to converse with the languages embedded in a PC or Apple-based tablet, for remote factory monitoring and operation.

That is a world away from designing a gear or a cam (while no more important) and should appeal to a different demographic than a typical civil or structural engineering recruit.

Combining the needs of the “smart factory of the future” with software programming skills, iPads and even games consoles, should naturally lift the image of this branch of engineering to appeal to tech-minded teenagers.

The cross-disciplinary needs of modern engineering – yes, when communicated better – should also really inspire more people. Imagine working on a project that combines structural, mechanical, chemical and biological disciplines to design new body implants, like slow release drug packets and the amazing micro-bubble technology that ERA campaign poster girl Dr Eleanor Stride is working on. The demand for more exciting, cross-discipline engineering is rising.

I recall what Dr Mark Claydon-Smith, head of manufacturing at the EPSRC, told me at a Loughborough conference in 2010 when discussing this agenda. “People forget – this stuff is really hard. At the higher level you must be very bright.”

The UK is producing 51,000 engineers a year and it needs to produce 87,000 to 100,000 to fulfil forecast demand. What size is the pool of capable people from which to take the 100,000? One hundred thousand from a working population of 30 million seems risible, but how many of the 30 million are good enough, frankly, to be engineers?

The brightest 5% must also be divided between non-engineering science fields, medicine, law, and other professions. Then the 100,000 is contextually much harder to reach and maybe 50,000-60,000 is actually typical for a country of this size.

In sum, some of Luther Pendragon’s recommendations are very commendable, especially: seeking a unified approach to messaging, link engineering to entrepreneurship, improve engineering companies’ media engagement and audit existing initiatives and assess their effectiveness. I question the wisdom of uniting engagement strategies under one brand or idea; this seems impracticable given the number and variety of these activities, some are privately run and why would they want to cede their hard work to one organisation? Let them flourish individually but record the outcomes, yes.

Something else missing from the report is the overlooked role of big industry. Here’s your role model!

BAE Systems visits vast numbers of schools each year with a devoted roadshow. More blue chip companies should do the same. They will have more gravitas than an engineering institute or communications firm or their secondees, as kids can see the jobs in front of them. Rumour has it that two big blue chips are manoeuvring to make such a play, dealing direct with BIS. Watch this space.

Two radical thoughts to leave on:

• Every secondary school maths, physics, chemistry and CDT teacher in the UK should spend two days a month in a real company, ideally a manufacturing firm. What would they do there? Shadow other jobs, sit in on meetings, re-learn CAD and manufacturing engineering skills. Contextualise their classes.

• Every industry support body and institution should have a young person, sub-23 years, on their board of directors. Their responsibilities are diluted commensurate with their age, but they should attend meetings and contribute to agendas as an ambassador of schools and young employees.

Will Stirling