Graham Pitcher talks with EngineeringUK's chief executive about the efforts being made to improve the profession's image.
Following the deregulation of the financial markets in 1986 – the so called 'big bang' – financial services became the mainstay of the UK's economy. Manufacturing and engineering came to be seen as being of the past; money was the bright new future. The global financial crisis has had an unexpected benefit for the UK; it has brought engineering and manufacturing back into the mainstream. All of a sudden, what were seen as 'sunset' industries have been restored as an essential part of the UK's future. "People have been talking about a post industrial society," said Paul Jackson, chief executive of EngineeringUK. "Now, they realise we need a new industrial society and that must have manufacturing at its heart, along with a strong knowledge base and ways to apply that knowledge." But if engineering and manufacturing are to flourish in the future, much work needs to be done. On the one hand, engineers are getting older and the profession has an image problem. On the other, large numbers of new recruits will be needed to play a part in the sector's revival. EngineeringUK – the new name for the Engineering and Technology Board – has the remit to promote the vital contribution that engineers, and engineering and technology, make to our society. The body also aims to inspire people at all levels to pursue careers in engineering and technology. Jackson said: "We have three workstreams. Two of these are engineering focused, with the third addressing the broader science, technology, engineering and maths – STEM – context." The STEM effort is centred around the Big Bang Fair, being held in Manchester from 11 to 13 March. The three day event – targeted at those aged from 9 to 19 – showcases innovation and creativity. "We're delivering this in association with about 70 organisations," Jackson noted. The Big Bang Fair (www.thebigbangfair.co.uk) is part of EngineeringUK's remit to improve the profile of engineering. "Young people study STEM subjects at school, so we are building on that to create the next generation of engineers. We're also getting engineering into schools as an additional activity in conjunction with the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE)." It also looks to address something highlighted in the organisations' latest report – EngineeringUK 2009/2010. It's an interesting paradox; although art and design is the most popular subject amongst 7 to 11 year olds, with design and technology third, those aged from 7 to 16 have the least positive opinion of engineering. "It shows that what they perceive as 'engineering' is a bit dull, but what they are doing in their design and technology classes is fun. We have to make the link between that and real opportunities in engineering. That's where the enrichment activities with the RAE can help. But we are certainly keen to see engineering included in the curriculum." Big Bang certainly seems to be pressing the right buttons: already, 15,000 people are registered for the event – more than double the attendance at 2009's event. Why the rebranding? "We have tried to encapsulate what we do," Jackson explained. "Engineering and Technology Board sounded bureaucratic and we don't intend to operate in that way. We still have the remit to promote the vital role of engineers and to improve the supply of new engineers." In that respect, Jackson pointed out the latest report shows the need for 587,000 'new' people with engineering skills. Some of these will be graduates, some will be technicians, others will have been retrained. "The UK is still the sixth largest manufacturing economy in the world. If we are to maintain that position, not only do we need to bring in new people, we also need to upskill existing employees; production line jobs of the past will be the engineering jobs of the future," Jackson asserted. "If the UK wants to maintain its position as a manufacturer, it's a matter of making sure we continue to invest in skills." Jackson is well aware of the scale of the problem which is being addressed. "This isn't something that any one group can fix; even Government can't fix it alone. It needs people working together effectively to deal with the problem. But, if we don't do anything about this, it will become a problem." In the end, improving people's perceptions of engineering may come down to better marketing. "We have to get better at presenting what engineering is," Jackson admitted, "and we have to be able to show this to people who may not be interested in building bridges or designing chips. We have to show that work of social importance can be done by engineering talent. To do this, we need a broader canvas, not a narrower image. "We have used the slogan 'engineers make it happen' before and that went down well. If our starting point is that engineering brings solutions, that's not a bad thing," he concluded.