The Naked Engineer: stripping industry issues bare

Posted on 2 Feb 2012

This month NE, our anonymous manufacturing columnist, strikes a blow for engineering professionalism and lays out bold plans for protecting the status of British Engineers.

To create, build, engineer and manufacture something with integrity takes a deep knowledge of nature. The molecular structure of metals, clearance/interference tolerances, capacitance, fatigue life, rolling resistance, Young’s Modulus, elongation, speeds and feeds to name but a few.

This world is honed and formed until it is part of the individual, no product can be looked at without a mental deconstruction of how it was made; the design, materials, tooling, jigging, assembly and finish. This is the world of an Engineer and without this insight and respect for the experience involved, any aspiration of rebalancing the economy towards manufacturing will not occur.

But what is an ‘Engineer’ to the majority of the UK population? The man who finalised the impeller profile for Rolls Royce’s aero engines, the woman who developed a manufacturing process for the insulation in many of the world’s satellites, or the guy who you called out to fix your leaking tap at home or the one that changed the oil in your car at its annual service. In Great Britain this is far from clear.

This is not the case with other professional roles. If you are in the medical profession, a surgeon is a surgeon; a doctor is a doctor; a nurse a nurse. Furthermore – it seems that this difficulty with defining engineering is a peculiarly British problem (despite the supposed ability of English to outstrip other languages in its ability to describe with greater nuance). In Germany, Pakistan and many other countries, the title of Chartered Engineer has similar status to the title of ‘Dr’ and there is no confusion as to the occupation of those bearing the title. Does this really matter? Or are those who raise this question just being precious about wanting to show how special we ‘real’ Engineers are?

I do not believe so. Both our young and their parents do not understand what an Engineer is. In a survey some years ago the question was asked of a group of 14-19 year olds to name a living Engineer, the answer was not Dyson – who those in industry today might consider the predictable choice – but Kevin Webster, the mechanic of Coronation Street!

This gives a clear insight into what many in the UK perceive an Engineer to be, and who can blame them. Their most common interface with an Engineer is when they see it plastered on the side of a van on the motorway or standing in their drive while a dodgy dishwasher is fixed in the kitchen. Heating Engineer, Drainage Engineer, Electrical Engineer – “don’t worry an engineer will be with you shortly” is a common refrain from call centres the nation over.

The result is that when at the critical crossroads of career choice, many students shy away from leaving the door open to Engineering as their understanding of what it is involves a boiler suit, a monkey wrench and a poor salary. If they are lucky enough to really understand what it means to be an Engineer and are excited by it, the chances are their parents won’t have a similar enthusiasm and would far rather their son or daughter become an accountant, lawyer or doctor or something equally ‘respectable’. mine certainly did.

So what to do?

The answer is simple.

We must regulate the use of the title of Engineer as we do with Doctor, Barrister or Accountant. I will admit I am not sure of the detail behind how to do this, but it must be a case of the Engineering Council working with government to ensure that unless you are registered and qualified by them to the appropriate level (Incorporated and Chartered Engineers) then you cannot attribute yourself the title Engineer.

If this is then backed up with a government advertising campaign as we saw for teachers a few years back we may just begin to shift the perception of what an Engineer and those that make things really are and start to rebalance our economy as so many of us hope for.