By Peter Marsh
Britain does a poor job in conveying modern views of engineering to young people and encouraging more of them to choose it as a career, according to a hard hitting assessment of the decades-old struggle in Britain to update public perceptions of the discipline.
“The lack of engineers in positions of influence in society is mirrored by a lack of understanding of the importance of engineering and the role engineers play, compounded by our inability to communicate that engineering is exciting,” says an authoritative report by a top barrister and civil engineer.
In the study Prof John Uff highlights “the importance of marketing [of engineering related subjects] in addressing misperceptions and prompting enquiry” but says this is inadequately addressed in many schemes operated either by the engineering profession or educational groups. “STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] options are, for some young people, loaded with perceptions of limitations,” the report says.
Uff lays much of the blame at the door of Britain’s 35 official engineering institutions – of which the three biggest commissioned his inquiry. The institutions are said in the study to be “inward facing, elitist and insular” and “do little to engage with the wider engineering community or with society at large”.
The professor singles out for rebuke the promotional body EngineeringUK. “Serious criticisms have been voiced as to the performance and outcomes achieved by EngineeringUK in its educational activities, which are criticised as ineffective, particularly the campaigns to inspire school children to take up STEM studies… The UK remains woefully behind international competitors in recruiting potential engineers.”
The report says: “Allowing for the fact that EngineeringUK has only been operating since 2010, the question still arises why, despite some two decades of endeavour by EngineeringUK and its predecessor, there has been no material increase in numbers taking STEM courses.” EngineeringUK evolved from the Engineering Technology Board, which in turn was born from the Engineering Council. These bodies and the engineering community have been trying to improve the image of the profession for more than 30-years.
However Paul Jackson, outgoing chief executive of EngineeringUK, said Prof John Uff was “wrong” on several points where he reprimands the organisation.
“I don’t think the reality of what we’ve achieved in terms of changing the public’s views about engineers is captured in the report. What we see in this study is one person’s opinion about EngineeringUK.”
Bernie Rickinson, chief executive of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining, one of the 35 institutions, said: “Uff’s criticisms of EngineeringUK are unjustified, and to the bulk of the [engineering] community these views are opposed.”
Uff’s conclusions are part of an analysis of Britain’s long running effort to rid engineering and related disciplines of its perception of being an old fashioned activity, and as a result attract more young people to tackle deep-seated skills shortages. Such concerns were behind the establishment of Made Here Now as a project to use the internet and social media to provide more upbeat impressions of manufacturing and engineering so as to make them more appealing career choices.
Uff says the repercussions of the failure in presenting the right images about engineering have a serious impact on businesses.
“The STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] skills pipeline fails to produce the potential numbers indicated by initial entrants… The result is a serious lack of scientific literacy and a highly restricted talent pool for engineering… a huge missed opportunity.”
Uff’s report was published earlier this year although its broad conclusions have been debated informally within the profession since last autumn.
Many top professional bodies have welcomed the overall conclusions – particularly the need for greater coordination of existing promotional schemes. In particular Uff calls for greater cooperation or even a full merger between bodies such as the Royal Academy of Engineering – which takes the lead on representing UK engineering to the government – and other groups including EngineeringUK. However the main engineering institutions have already rejected the sections of the report calling for mergers between EngineeringUK and other bodies.
Philip Greenish, RAE chief executive, said: “John Uff’s thorough and forward-looking review has focussed the attention of the engineering profession on many important issues which must be addressed if we are to meet the needs of society more effectively. It is now incumbent on the profession as a whole to take stock of his recommendations and act effectively on them.”
According to the RAE, 20,000 additional graduates and high level apprenticeship engineers will be needed every year between now and 2024 to match the expected demand.
In his report Uff considered the entire field of engineering and related technical disciplines. An estimated 4m-5m people in the UK have engineering related skills of which about 40 per cent are thought to work in manufacturing. The rest are in a range of other fields where engineering skills are needed – from designing bridges and power stations to servicing central heating boilers or working as a banker analysing technology companies.
Uff points out that providing a modern view of engineering to young people is part of a problem with deep historical roots that cannot be divorced from wider failings in the education system.
“As regards education and training of engineers, there is little doubt that the system which has evolved over some two centuries, with late and grudging acknowledgement by academia of the importance of engineering, is still a long way from the system required by an advanced technology-based economy in the 21st century.”
This story appears on madeherenow.com