Imagine an engineer. Who are they? What do they look like? What do they do? When prompted, most will picture a bespectacled white male grasping a pencil and a calculator. It’s a perception that’s got to change because it’s a perception that’s costing the industry.
Your country needs you
You don’t need Lord Kitchener to tell you that the UK needs more engineers. Engineering is currently worth over a quarter of our GDP. But there’s a lack of new talent pushing through the next generation. We’re facing an imminent shortage of STEM applicants to step into the industries that require engineering. Too much demand; not enough supply.
So, how to tackle that skills deficit? In identifying the lack of budding scientists, the engineering industry has self-diagnosed an image problem, and it’s been decided that it’s highly overdue a makeover.
What is the perception of engineers?
In The Royal Academy of Engineering’s 2007 report exploring attitudes towards the profession, there were many favourable findings to celebrate. From the outside looking in, engineering is seen as a highly-skilled, highly-sought after and handsomely paid profession.
In short, it’s a discipline that commands respect and remuneration in healthy doses. Not to mention the fact that it’s regarded as positive to the world at large; a discipline that advances science and solves problems.
So far, so good.
The bad news…
The report’s conclusions pointed to a limited understanding of engineering by the public. And it’s still perceived as largely a white male industry for builders or architects. That stifles the attractiveness of engineering and is detrimental to research, which benefits from diversity.
The good news…
The good news is that in the ten years since that report, engineering is beginning to turn the image ship around. For starters, there’s been a determined focus on integrating more women into engineering. The slow gender shift started emphatically with the appointment of Naomi Climer as the Institute for Engineering Technologies’ first female president. Since taking up the position, she has spearheaded initiatives to stir interest in female engineers. The Woman Engineer of the Year Award and an online support network are big gestures, designed to demonstrate the inclusive nature of engineering in the 21st century.
Grabbing enquiring minds
It’s not just a female issue though. Tackling the identity of engineering at a grassroots level has begun in earnest. That starts with the public’s understanding of what engineering actually is.
Beyond the narrow scope of structure and construction, there’s a lack of knowledge on how much engineering can entail. The key to engaging children in engineering is to emphasise its crucial importance in kid-friendly fare, such as mobile games, innovative technologies, and, of course, the internet. Demonstrating the achievement of engineering knowledge and skills plays a big part in showing off its potential and attraction.
Pop culture is doing its bit, with shows such as Lego Masters and Big Life Fix, celebrating the joy and invention behind the skills. And, of course, even television’s most famous fictional scientist has taken a huge step towards better female representation.
Engineering a brighter future
An inclusive approach. A broad appeal to children’s inquisitive nature. The harnessing of young ingenuity. Through innovations such as The Big Bang Fair, National Women in Engineering Day and the effort of the STEM project, engineering is slowly and steadily projecting a healthier engagement with the public. Let’s see whether it’s enough to kickstart a new cultural boom in the ingenuity of UK engineering.