British engineering has an impressive history, with Victorian engineers in particular doing much to usher in the modern world. But more than that – it is a profession that is transforming the UK today, from the digital revolution to delivering net zero, and a skill set that is crucial to the continued social and economic prosperity throughout the UK, and worldwide.
Despite that, the profession is sometimes overlooked by wider society. Here our Managing Director Asa Whitfield offers his own assessment of engineering in the UK today, and why he believes the value engineers offer might be better recognised if the title was protected.
Why is engineering important?
Engineering accounts for over 30% of the UK’s economic output, according to a widely reported study by the Royal Academy of Engineering. In the UK and internationally, the adaptions being made in response to climate change and to transition to a more sustainable future are engineering changes.
Engineers work every day to design, expand and maintain the infrastructure that permits and underpins modern life, working across a huge range of areas from robotics to rail. In our work for example, we are involved in electrification within rail, working on on-shore projects for Dogger Bank, which is the UK’s largest wind farm, connecting data centres to the National Grid, working on electric vehicle charging schemes using waste energy, as well as contributing our expertise to new, more sustainable, urban developments like Welborne Garden Village.
The shortage of trained engineers
While the need for engineering services is high, in the UK, and globally, there is a huge shortage of trained engineers and without a pipeline of talent to increase this skill set, the gap between supply and demand will continue to grow.
In the UK the number of students studying engineering has risen by 14% in the last decade – however, despite the increase, the number of young people studying for apprenticeships and degrees is not enough to make up the shortfall estimated to be between 30-60,000 each year. With an ageing workforce, 20% due to retire in the next 5 years, this challenge will become more acute in the coming years.
While there is amazing work being done by organisations such as the Royal Academy for Engineers, Women’s Engineering Society and Engineering UK, for example through their event Tomorrow’s Engineers Week (Nov 6-10) to increase the number of people studying engineering and increase the diversity across the profession, it is clear more needs to be done.
So, how is engineering seen in the UK?
Recent research from Engineering UK , found that we were the second most trusted profession in the UK – trusted to tell the truth by 87% of the population. In another recent survey 80% of the public expressed their admiration for the industry, yet two thirds, 66%, said they had never thought of a career in the sector.
These numbers suggest that there is a gap between positive perception and people aspiring to become an engineer. This is perhaps because engineering is not perceived as prestigious in the same way other professions are. Closely related to this is an all too common trend we see – that many graduate engineers go on to work in other fields such as finance or consultancy – perhaps drawn to careers that are perceived as more high profile.
Reflecting on this I believe we as an industry and the UK as a whole can do more to bridge the gap between our national admiration for engineers and actually inspiring people to join the profession. Perhaps it is time to finally recognise the importance of engineering and bring the role of engineer to equal standing with accountant, doctor, solicitor, and other protected job titles.
Does the title of Engineer matter?
Speaking to colleagues from Europe, it is clear that the title Engineer holds a different weight. In many countries, Italy and Germany for example, the public understand the title in the same way they would Doctor. In these countries the title is regulated and protected, requiring a bachelor’s degree if not considerably more – meaning that only those with the relevant qualifications can use this. There is similar protection in Canada, Chile, Turkey, and Brazil.
In the UK the title of Chartered Engineer and Incorporated Engineer is protected under Royal Charter, as it is in Australia. The Engineering Council is the regulatory authority in the UK and offer RegCheck – and online too to confirm the qualifications of an engineer, and if someone believes a person is misusing an engineering title (EngTech, IEng, CEng, ICTTech) the person can be reported via their contact form for investigation. What action will be taken is not clear, and there are very few reported cases of false claims being prosecuted, with one in Australia and none on public record in the UK.
As the Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) crisis has highlighted, with the Institution of Structural Engineers (IstructE), along with the Government and Health and Safety Executive (HSE) emphasising that Chartered Structural Engineer must oversee the assessment of all building suspected to contain RAAC, there are important safety reasons why the appropriately qualified engineer is hired for the right job – we discussed why in a recent article.
Critically most people have little or no awareness of these specific professional titles, and if they are aware are perhaps confused by multiple terms. Engineer alone is perhaps the most meaningful, but it is not an official title and as such doesn’t connote anything like it does in much of Europe. I think a pattern is discernible. In countries where the word people actually use is regulated or narrowly applied, engineering is seen as a more prestigious profession.
In fact, when we use the term here in the UK it could refer to a huge variety of jobs – from software engineer to boiler engineer to telecoms engineer. Few professions generate more admiration in most of us than nursing, yet we have no awkwardness in acknowledging that doctor and nurse denote different functions, and different levels of expertise. That sort of distinction is arguably what we lack in relation to technical work. In this country, if your broadband is down, a telecoms engineer will be with you shortly. In much of Europe, that person would be entirely respected, but called perhaps a technician – differentiated in language from the specialist who holds advanced academic and professional qualifications.
Is there good news about engineering in the UK?
Not everything is doom and gloom, by any means. The very word engineer comes from a root meaning “ingenuity, creativity”, as an industry we can work collectively to solve this challenge.
Professional bodies are working to increase the importance and profile of regulated titles such as Chartered Engineer. In the absence of change around the title Engineer itself, that is helping wider awareness of the value of engineering and working very well within the industry as a measure of professional competence.
Fundamentally the goal of making sure engineering receives the recognition it deserves, is to inspire fantastic and passionate young people to join the profession. The quality of British engineering education and practice remain very high – and we can all play a part in raising the profile of the profession as a whole and showcasing that from aerospace to renewable energy there are so many exciting places engineers can ply their trade.
Looking over recent additions to our blog, I was struck by the words of my colleague Ioannis Iliadis, discussing the high standards of our rail sector, and how the UK is a fantastic place to train and work as an engineer.
Like Ioannis, I feel immensely proud to be a part of UK engineering. I’m also passionate about encouraging the next generation and believe the UK is a great place to develop an engineering career. Even better than this would be if we could convert the public admiration and trust in the profession, into more young people aspiring and training to be engineers, by showing them it is a role that is valued.