What did engineers ever do for us?

One of the positive aspects of the national lockdown was the widespread realisation that people in many different jobs played an important role not only in helping those infected by the virus but also in keeping society going. Shop workers, delivery drivers, refuse collectors and postal delivery workers all got long overdue recognition for their contribution to our daily lives. As we come under stricter restrictions once again, their importance will endure in the public psyche.

When I first saw this awareness being reported in the media, I immediately thought of a motivational speech delivered by General Slim to the support troops of the ‘Forgotten Army’ in the Burma campaign during the Second World War. Just as we do now, Slim knew the importance of these support troops to those on the front line. Slim compared the army to a clock, with each gear representing a soldier. Some gears are big and some are small, but remove one gear, even the smallest, and the clock does not work. We had recognition in the media and from the government that certain industries, such as water and power, and their workers were essential. However, despite the engineering analogy I have given above, I did not see or hear engineers being praised as key workers. Why do you think that is?

It is because engineers are given little status in the UK. In 2011, The Guardian produced a list of Britain’s top 300 intellectuals ordered by profession. There were 12 scientists listed, but engineering was not even included as one of the professions! In a newspaper review of a book, back in January, the reviewer wrote that the author had not become a worldwide bestseller by writing books about “unromantic figures such as engineers”: the hero of the book was a doctor. In September, a newspaper reported the results of a Halifax survey of job choices of children between the ages of eight and 15. Top was Premier League footballer. Then came the expected choices of doctor, teacher, police officer, firefighter and nurse. Even banker made the list, but engineer did not.

October’s issue of NDT News[1] reported on research from Engineering UK that the COVID-19 pandemic has widened the gender gap when young people are considering careers in engineering and technology. The full report makes interesting reading[2]. The central finding, that more needs to be done to attract young people, particularly females, into engineering, is important. However, there are a number of other items of note. Despite the general lack of acknowledgement of the role of engineers described in the second paragraph above, when asked about how important or not engineers were in stated activities, the percentages of young people who said ‘very important’ or ‘fairly important’ were as follows: developing new ventilators, 85%; keeping us connected, 78%; turning exhibition centres into hospitals, 75%; developing coronavirus tests, 60%; working on a possible coronavirus vaccine, 53%. So there is some hope.

When gathering the information for this article I searched using the words: ‘engineering gender gap COVID’ and the first link was to an Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) web page[3]. Following the links on this page led to further information on gender and diversity in engineering, including a piece written by Diane Boon[4]. Diane reports that the majority of both females and males think that engineering is suitable for females and that this perception actually increased between 2015 and 2019. Unfortunately, in the same period, the perception of engineering as a desirable career has fallen for both genders. This is a UK problem: engineering is not presented with any glamour or prestige. More positive attitudes to engineering are found elsewhere in Europe. Diane writes that in the UK the word ‘engineer’ is used too loosely. This echoes what I pointed out back in January 2014 when an engineer was going to fix a door handle! Her conclusion that the engineering sector needs to prove itself to potential employees is echoed by one of the ‘key recommendations’ of the Engineering UK report: “The government and organisations involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and STEM inspiration must do more to highlight how a career in STEM – and particularly in engineering – contributes to improving society.”

Fortunately, organisations are working to address the image of engineering. Tomorrow’s Engineers has a career quiz[5] for school children and is using attractive titles such as Electron Pioneer, Mechanical Marvel and Sea Crusader. There are also lots of other resources for schools available on the website. Another organisation is This is Engineering[6], which organised a ‘This is Engineering Day’ on 4 November, which was supported by BINDT. Have a look at what was involved.

There is still a lot more work to do, not least in promoting the importance of engineering to adults and parents, so that in future when key workers are mentioned, engineers immediately come to mind. Surely, one of you out there has a best-selling novel in you with an engineer as the romantic hero/heroine?

1. https://www.bindt.org/News/October-2020/covid-19-widens-gender-gap-on-engineering-career-choices
2. https://www.engineeringuk.com/research/briefings/young-people-and-covid-19
3. https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2020/08/coronavirus-pandemic-widens-gender-gap-in-engineering-career-choices
4. https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2020/08/the-real-reason-female-engineers-are-still-a-rarity-in-the-uk
5. https://www.tomorrowsengineers.org.uk/meet-the-future-you-careers-quiz
6. https://www.thisisengineering.org.uk/more-info/about-us

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within NDT News. They do not represent the views of Jacobs or BINDT.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Midsummer House, Riverside Way, Bedford Road, Northampton NN1 5NX, UK. Fax: +44 (0)1604 438301; Email: ndtnews@bindt.org or email Bernard McGrath direct at bernard.mcgrath1@jacobs.com

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