If you search for the word ‘engineer’ on Google Images, you are met by a sea of hard hats and hi-vis jackets. There are plenty of clipboards, plans, blueprints and people pointing. Where the image lacks a hard hat, it will probably make up for it with a lab coat or electronics. On the plus side, the engineers are typically smiling, and often outside in the sun.
Search for ‘engineering’ and you don’t fare much better. Technical drawings and gears predominate. On occasion, a building, bridge or engine makes an appearance. It is little wonder that media outlets rarely carry inspiring images of engineering. Worse still, they report on ground-breaking achievements without mentioning the word ‘engineering’.
The IET recently conducted research into what schoolchildren think a ‘typical’ engineer looks like. Of a sample aged 9-16, 44 per cent imagined they would don a hard hat, and 40 per cent thought they’d wear a hi-vis jacket; 67 per cent said that in their mind a typical engineer is male, and 51% thought they would be white. We know from our own research that young people are put off by images of hard hats, white coats and people working alone; images of cutting-edge technology, teamwork and creativity are more appealing.
I don’t need to tell you how concerning this is, or go over the skills gap statistics that tell us why we need to change young people’s opinions. A lot of good research has been undertaken to raise awareness of the challenge. At the last count, for an Academy report published in May 2016, more than 600 organisations were found to be involved in supporting engineering or STEM education.
More initiatives mean more young people are likely to engage directly with engineering, but many have argued that a lack of coordination and consistency has limited the messages’ impact. To give as many young people as possible the opportunity to see that engineering could be for them, we need scale and a shared voice, so that they encounter the same messages repeatedly.
Media consumption, particularly among young people, is increasingly dominated by images and videos. Last year, more than a billion hours of video were watched on YouTube every day. Video prompts the most engagement, and that appetite is predicted to increase. Cisco estimates that 75 per cent of the world’s mobile data traffic will be video by 2020. At the same time, the increasing sophistication of social media platforms and their advertising models means that you can choose specifically who you reach with your content, making both scale and personalisation possible.
We have an incredible opportunity. Engineering is broad, varied and, for the most part, tangible. This is a great basis for films and images for social and digital media that are more representative than what currently exists. At the Academy, we have launched a multi-year digital advertising and marketing campaign to recast the image of engineering for young people. Called This is Engineering, it will use short-form video and eye-catching images to reach teenagers.
Engineers are great problem-solvers, but with This is Engineering, we are taking a marketing approach to tackling the skills challenge. We have analysed the existing research and commissioned additional studies to answer specific questions about what will inspire teenagers. Importantly, we are starting where the teenagers are, on their favoured platforms and with the subjects they are already interested in, demonstrating to them how engineering is behind the things they love – sport, music, film, tech, fashion, gaming. And we are telling this story through role models that teens from all backgrounds can identify with. Pre-launch tests of the video adverts showed that consideration of engineering among teens rose by 69 per cent, and by 142 per cent among females.
Our campaign is not designed to duplicate or replace good work already underway. We’ve set out to plug a gap, to give real scale to messages that resonate with young people through digital advertising. And we’re doing it for the whole profession: the campaign originated as a response to a letter written to The Times by seven major engineering companies, calling on the Academy to “market the dream” of engineering to the next generation. We will make all of the This is Engineering content available to the whole profession to use.
What makes this an even more unmissable opportunity is that the government has designated 2018 the Year of Engineering, bringing together organisations across the country to encourage the public to take a closer look at engineering. This collective awareness-raising will act as a catalyst for the sustained, pan-profession energy and coordination it needs to meet its ambitions, and transform the public image of our dynamic, fulfilling, future-shaping profession.
Jo Trigg is associate director, communications and partnerships at the Royal Academy of Engineering. For more information, visit www.ThisisEngineering.org.uk, @ThisIsEng or email firstname.lastname@example.org