It’s no surprise to hear there’s a shortage of engineers in the UK. Research published by the Royal Academy of Engineering last year showed the UK needs more than one million additional engineers and technicians by 2020. This need is twice the number of graduate and apprentices the UK is currently producing each year. So, we are 20% short of the country’s needed engineers.
A lot of good work is being done in education, government and industry as a whole to encourage young people into engineering and, importantly, promote a heavily male-orientated industry to females. I have no problem with that.
But a question that is less addressed by government and industry is: what is being done to retain and develop existing engineers and technicians? Both government and industry suggest that they are doing a lot, but are they succeeding?
Engineering as a high status profession
The Institution of Mechanical Engineers, supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering, recently undertook some research to understand the opinions of teachers, parents, young people aged 17–18, young people aged 12–16, employers and engineers on a variety of questions on engineering in society. The subsequent paper, called , offered interesting insight into the differences between how engineers see the world compared to other groups surveyed. One telling result was how engineers see engineering status against the other groups being asked – over 55% of the other groups saw engineering as a high status profession while only 21 % of engineers agreed.
Now, this blog is not another bleat about the poor status of engineers! The statistic suggests that engineers don’t feel they are appreciated and the question of status may not be with society as a whole but with the engineers themselves, how they are employed and perceive their values. We no longer live in Brunel’s time, when every project seemed spectacular. Most of the UK’s built environment is up and developed so the impact of engineering is far less dramatic, and perhaps taken for granted – especially by Generation Z, who’ve never known life without the Internet!
Engineering projects still a marvel
In developing countries, engineering projects are still a marvel to many and engineers who work on them enjoy the high status this brings. It’s interesting to me that the recent series of documentaries on the cross-rail link London caught the public’s imagination. I think it was the scale, in general, that was the ‘wow factor’, not the fact that it all happened with minimal disruption to the public at large. I am guessing that people affected by the project did see it as a great inconvenience.
The real status question that needs addressing by the engineering industry is: how do we get engineers to feel valued themselves in their roles? To me, the answer is that it’s as much down to employers as the individual engineers. The lack of employee engagement is not a unique problem to engineering and exists in many industries and other professions. So, assuming there are engagement measures in place by the employers, what else would help improve engineer’s feelings of self-worth?
Real engineering science and judgment
As design engineers we believe that developing engineering skills – and celebrating the expression of those skills with smart engineering solutions – is the key to engineers enjoying their jobs. Challenging engineers to engineer rather than cut and paste past solutions makes them think about what the client wants and develop solutions that meet those needs. This requires real engineering science and judgment on their behalf and, in my opinion, brings their role alive.
Engineers need to see the value engineering brings to our clients and society as a whole. The Institution of Civil Engineers have always beaten that drum but, in the commercial hubbub, employers have forgotten to remind their engineers of this.
Of course, such an approach needs to learn from and build upon past lessons and it’s fair to say this involves more effort. Consequently, there is always the thorny question of how this extra effort is funded. But that’s another blog for another day.
Written by: Dave Tyson, Owner and Managing Director