If the Queen can bestow honorary titles on pop stars and sportspeople, why not on a few more engineers?

Text first published February 10, 2014 on Conservative Home

It’s excellent news that Sir James Dyson is doubling the size of his base in Malmesbury and along with it the number of engineers he employs. But he reckons we need at least 87,000 engineers a year to meet demand. According to Engineering UK, by the time today’s primary school pupils are of working age, we will require over two million or our economy will suffer devastating repercussions. If those positions aren’t filled here, the work (like manufacturing) will be sourced elsewhere.

Critics of this visionary research park fear that it will just benefit more bright Asian students, particularly if Damian Green would just relax the current immigration rules. But, as Dyson points out, despite our proud heritage, currently only 10 percent of top talent taking PhDs in engineering are British. So with less than ten years to find solutions to the lacklustre appeal of this subject to young Brits, based on recent research, I believe there are three relevant factors to consider from what these kids had to report : It’s dull, it’s hard and it’s not sufficiently rewarded.

It’s boring: (not to be confused with the technical term which means to make a large hole): Research has shown that 49% of 7-11 year-olds believe this. They would prefer more immediately visible careers as teachers, footballers and doctors. They’re right. Engineers are not as visible in our community as those they selected. We British are a sociable bunch. We enjoy engaging in activities with other people. Therefore any enticement to children must surely depict this. At least the website of the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine are on the right track using quotes from members. “There is nothing more satisfying than seeing a cancer patient being treated with an item of equipment you have helped to develop” And “My best day at work was when a four year old girl with restricted growth collected a new bike I had designed for her. Smiles like hers are why I do my job”.

It’s Difficult: A study carried out at the IET a couple of years ago supports this finding as a major ‘switch-off’ factor. Apparently young people are reluctant to take subjects they may not achieve highly in. No surprises. It’s not smart to tackle something so out of your depth you are destined to fail from the start. However by secondary level this `taking the easy route’ pattern of thinking is set. And the path to this career is indeed hard. STEM and engineering courses require higher grades than arts and humanities based subjects and also in difficult subjects. Plus, the University timetable is tough—five days a week, as opposed to some degrees which are less intensive. All of which brings us on to why you would want to do it in the first place.

It’s not sufficiently rewarded. This is the crunch point. Engineers are not massively overpaid. We don’t seem to remunerate people who design and make things anything like as well as those who promote and sell them. Possibly this is just a by-product of the fast profit culture of recent years. Whatever the reason, it is no wonder that on leaving university with heavy debts, ambitious young people with strong analytical skills find it illogical to turn down the financial packages of a City or business career.

Pay aside, nor are the talents of engineers adequately recognised. Here maybe we should look to Germany for inspiration. A country renowned for their manufacturing, they face the same skills shortage, but with one massive advantage. Their culture has always valued and rewarded professional engineers with respect and prestige.

In the UK we seem to do the opposite. So little is known about engineering, there is little distinction in community status between someone who comes to fix the fridge and an aspiring Brunel or Whittle.

Enterprises like Dyson’s Park paying decent salaries to PhD students will help encourage older students, and Government should consider subsidies on STEM degrees to shore this up. But not until we tackle the underlining significance of status, can we get a change in perception across the board. And that will feed through to primary school age children. Surely, if the Queen can bestow honorary titles on pop stars and sportspeople, why not on a few more engineers?

To begin with, maybe on qualifying following lengthy and difficult training, they could be given a completely new designation like Master in recognition of their merits. Any other ideas?


About Louise Burfitt-Dons

Writer and social critic
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