Public perceptions of engineers and manufacturers

Posted on 3 Apr 2012

TM grapples with the sensitive issue of respect for engineering professionals in the UK. What bearing do public perceptions of the profession have on the fate of manufacturing and can we regulate the application of the term ‘engineer’?

It’s unlikely to come as a surprise to many of TM’s readers that the status attached to the word ‘engineer’ in the mind of Joe Public is something of a sore issue in manufacturing circles. At EEF’s National Manufacturing Conference (p84) in March the problem posed by ‘oily rag’ perceptions of engineering struck a chord with delegates and in February our Naked Engineer complained that the term has become abused by service centres and tradesmen.

Overall there seems to be a growing feeling that a redefinition of what exactly an engineer is, is long overdue. Here we speak to industry leaders and professional institutions representing manufacturers and engineers about their feelings on the status of ‘engineers’ in the UK and the practical steps which might be taken to alter it.

Will Brompton, MD of Brompton Bicycle
Will Butler-Adams, MD of Brompton Bicycle

Will Butler-Adams, managing director of Brompton Bicycle

I have been to a lot of schools and had schools into our factory. I have spoken with children, teachers and parents, and I have found that there is a broad misunderstanding of the term engineer.

Not to do anything about this now would represent a missed opportunity. There is a real political focus at the moment on rebalancing the economy and there is a chance that this momentum would give us that conditions we need to grasp this nettle.

The first step in changing misconception about the status of engineering is simply to not allow a plumber or AA mechanic to assume the term. A nurse could not call themselves a doctor. This is no derogation of what those people do – the guy who fixed my car from the AA the other day was a legend – but he was not an engineer.

This is not about elitism in terms of university education. There may be many routes to becoming a registered engineer and studying engineering at university should not qualify you. Many of my university contemporaries went off into financial services and they should not be considered engineers today any more than someone who studied medicine but did not practice should be considered a doctor.

I don’t believe that the common use of the word engineer in the English language is too far gone to achieve the kind of change I am talking about – it is only in the last 25 years that the term has become so vague. At the start of my career it seemed everyone had a different and very narrowly defined job title. There were laggers, fitters, tiffies, riggers. Back then naming what you did was terribly important and none of these people would have wanted to call themselves engineers – it wasn’t their job.

I’m not proposing we return to that but I do think there is a role for here for the Engineering Council in defining and regulating who can call themselves an engineer.

David Fox Chairman and CEO, Power Panels

I am a great supporter of the idea of reclaiming the word ‘engineer’ and I do believe that the use of the word should be protected.

I am not a chartered engineer – I am a companion of IMechE – but I do believe that now is the time to revisit the issue of how we qualify who is an engineer. I think an element of elitism in doing this is justified. Just look at the relative respect and pay scales that engineers in Germany receive. Pay for engineering roles in the UK is reflective of the disregard in which they are held.

There has been a general trend for job roles to become very vague. I think this is linked to the development of an out of proportion focus on CV writing in the process of getting a job – it has encouraged everyone to talk-up their experience on paper and imply levels of experience they do not actually have.

If we are to redefine what it means to be an engineer – and I think it is essential we do so as part of the current resurgence of manufacturing – then we must make it illegal for people to pose as one.

“The first step in changing misconception about the status of engineering is simply to not allow a plumber or AA mechanic to assume the term. A nurse could not call themselves a doctor” – Will Butler-Adams, managing director of Brompton Bicycle

Chris Mulvihill
Chris Mulvihill, managing director of EMS Manufacturing

Chris Mulvihil, managing director of EMS Manufacturing

We need to return to a stage where the word engineer stands for an appropriately qualified person practicing in certain specific roles within our manufacturing community.

I think that clarifying this definition would galvanise the manufacturing community, highlighting the broad church of engineering specialism the industry has to offer, from design and development through systems engineering and more. These might be considered as equivalent to medical specialisms in dermatology, heart surgery, neurology and so on. One specialist here will know relatively little about another area but together there is a profession that is respected and which young people look up to. By reclaiming and ‘professionalising’ the word engineer we could raise the profile of manufacturing as a genuine career area.

I’m reluctant to advocate a kind of appellation controlee approach to the use of the word. But if we are going to make a difference I find it hard to believe that we can avoid legislative intervention in the use of the title.

I think those that say we can simply leverage chartered status to achieve the professionalisation effect are missing the point. I am a chartered engineer and very proud of it but this is about defining the wealth creation role of engineering in our society. They have managed it in Germany – why not here?


Stephen Tetlow
Stephen Tetlow, CEO, Institution of Mechanical Engineers

Stephen Tetlow CEO, Institution of Mechanical Engineers

I don’t hold with the argument that calling a plumber an engineer is damaging to the profession.

We are where we are with our language. Engineers in the UK should not be bleating on and on about their status, they should be proving their worth to society and that worth is spread wider now than ever before. There has been a blurring of the term but now we see engineering talent being applied in so many sectors to huge value. There are engineers working in all walks of life and all kinds of manufacturing. They are helping make anything from cars to chocolate bars and we have members working for leading supermarkets engineering retail systems and working in hospitals too.

The important element in protecting the professional status of engineering is to recognise the thoroughly regulated and licensed standards of the Engineering Council. In these standards we are not just talking about chartered status but also incorporated and technician engineer status.

These standards have the same logic and benefits behind them for both individuals and employers. Getting these letters after your name sets you apart, for your employer and future employers, as someone with experience, drive, commitment and competence. Those who attain these standards have done more than gain an education. By going through the process of registration, a level of experience and professional development in how to deliver that experience is implicit.

These are the only properly licensed national vocational standards anywhere in science engineering and technology. And it is not as though they are not in active use. There are more than half a million registered engineers and technicians working across the nation today.

“I’m reluctant to advocate a kind of appellation controlee approach to the use of the word. But if we are going to make a difference I find it hard to believe that we can avoid legislative intervention in the use of the title” – Chris Mulvihill, MD, EMS Manufacturing

Statement from the Engineering Council

In recognition of the concern being voiced by engineering professionals in the UK over the protection of their status and public perceptions of engineering careers the Engineering Council released the following statement in March this year.

Commonplace use of the word engineer in our language has evolved over many centuries. Hence anyone in the UK may describe themselves as an engineer. This is perhaps regrettable, but seeking to regulate or legislate on the use of a now common term is recognised by the Engineering Council as totally impractical. However, the professional titles of Chartered Engineer (CEng), Incorporated Engineer (IEng), Engineering Technician (EngTech) and ICT Technician (ICTTech) may only be used by those who have been granted these titles through registration with the Engineering Council.

These titles attest to the professional competence of their holders and their commitment to professional ethics and practice. They are only awarded to those who can demonstrate, through a process of peer assessment, that they meet the required standards. The Engineering Council, with the Professional Engineering Institutions, keeps these standards under constant review to ensure that they remain valid and are clearly defined. Taken together, these features of our regulatory system provide assurance, serve to protect the public and give confidence to society as a whole. It is upon such recognition that the status of professional engineers and technicians must rest.

These professional titles are fully protected under law by means of the Engineering Council’s Royal Charter and Bye-laws; further legislation is thus unnecessary. In order to protect these titles action is taken through the courts against their unauthorised use. Through the European Directive on the Recognition of Professional Qualifications 2005, they are also recognised throughout the European Union. More generally, as a benchmark standard, the titles have a world-wide currency.