Public Perception of Engineering by Philippa Jefferis

When you read the word “Engineer” what image springs to mind? Perhaps an image of a hard hat sprung to mind for you, engineering-muggles? Or perhaps, you thought oil covered overalls like a survey of school children carried out in 2013 who voted that the most famous engineer from the UK was Kevin, the mechanic, in ITV’s Coronation Street. A noble profession, but also misleading as to what a lot of engineers do. Very few engineers will actually wear a hard hat on a day to day basis, and yet this image persists and probably puts people off from a career in engineering because they don’t want to work in a “dirty industry”. So how do we show that there’s so much more variety to the industry? Sure, you can work on construction site, which by the nature of the work is going to be noisy and dusty, BUT you could also be working in an office, or your own bedroom doing software development – there’s a job for all personal preference in this industry!

Perhaps you are an engineer reading this, and so you just think of yourself and sigh, knowing exactly where this blog post is going – but stay with me fellow engineers, we can’t hang up our (symbolic) hard hats yet!

This perception of engineering was up for debate and discussion at the workshop I attended, hosted by the Queen Elizabeth Prize for engineering – a global £1 million prize that celebrates a ground-breaking innovation in engineering; think Nobel Prize, but for engineering. However, it’s not just about rewarding great engineering, The QEPrize celebrates stories of these engineering successes to raise the profile of engineering and inspire new generations of engineers to take up the challenges of the future – which we need, desperately. The UK’s engineering industry is facing a skills shortage, we need 1.8 million people trained by 2025 a study carried out by EngineeringUK found, and with BREXIT uncertainty that home-grown talent is going to be even more important. Yet, the public perception of engineering is hindering that! It’s time for engineers to be the creative people they are, and find a way of solving the problem of the public perception of engineering – and hence The QEPrize hosted a day long workshop to look at why so few people want to be engineers.

Speaking directly to non-engineers reading this – why is that? What are we doing wrong? Please help us, if you’re even reading this?! One problem raised at the workshop was the fact that engineers find themselves in an echo-chamber, excitedly talking about engineering to each other – but not really breaking out into mainstream media. That’s a big part of the problem, the mainstream media – did anyone else notice how the engineers of the death star in the new Star Wars film fit a very stereotypical image of an engineer – old men. My friends were annoyed that I pointed this out during the film (OK, I’ll accept one thing engineers need to work on is better timing of our engagement). Yet come on, it’s frustrating a film celebrated for its increased diversity in its cast, yet in that scene no diversity, only stereotype.

Now there’s nothing wrong with old men, in fact their experience and expertise are critical to the future engineering challenges, yet how long until they retire? Who are they passing their experience on to? If we need 1.8 million new engineers, then we won’t find them in this demographic alone. The average age of an engineer in Britain is 54 and yet only 6% of students in the UK are studying engineering or technology. There’s a reason too that the stereotype of an engineer being a man exists, especially in the UK – only 9% of the UK engineering workforce are women. The stereotype is grounded in truth, but that is doing nothing for helping to diversify the industry nor providing the role models to show it’s a career for anyone and everyone who wants to problem solve some major global challenges.

It’s a big problem we’re facing – but why is that? Our discussions at the workshop focussed heavily on the outreach we carry out in schools. Engineers have been giving talks, hosting workshops and talking to anyone who will listen about how great engineering is and yet still the number of people coming into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) has not increased. Though our intentions have been good, and often done well it has little to no impact. It’s time we changed the record! A report will be produced by The QEPrize based on the findings of the workshop, and I’ll be sure to share it when it’s published. For now, however, a brief flavour of the report is summarised by the graphic below – a call to arms to my fellow engineers, you are still reading this right? Of course, you are, we all know first-hand the need for more engineers and you’re looking for the answer – well it’s in the graphic below (because we’re often visual learners).

Yet have I managed to keep any of the people I most need to connect with, are you still reading this? Perhaps not, but if you are still here – thank you. Please help us, what can engineers do to convince you that this is a great industry and that you, your sons and daughters, everyone should consider as a career choice. How do we change the public perception of engineering?

Philippa Jefferis is a Consultant Engineer at IMC Worldwide and a QEPrize Ambassaor you can follow her on twitter @PJJefferis  


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