News Analysis: Engineers tackle 'grubby' image

It is no secret that the engineering sectors are going through a skills slump. Adam Hill investigates the tough challenge of selling science to the masses.

Dirty, manual, intellectually undemanding and boring - as adjectives go, these four are just about as bad as it gets. Yet the Engineering Council, which regulates the profession, admits they describe the overwhelming perception of engineering to the majority of schoolchildren.

PROs have much to do. Tony Henderson, former head of PR and internal communications at Telewest Business, started as media and PR manager at the Institute of Electrical Engineers last week (PRWeek, 27 May), and a significant part of his remit is to address the industry's skills shortage.

The Society of Operations Engineers is attempting to garner more respect for the profession and wants to position itself as an expert on rail and road safety. To that end, Michelle Clarke, formerly at the Royal Society of Medicine, took up her post as head of communications and marketing this week. 'We can start with better media relations,' she says. 'For example, when you are shutting down chunks of the Tube system in London, you don't have engineers quoted, answering the questions about safety and staff shortages. People should know.'

Moreover, architects, not engineers, are bestowed the glory of heroic construction feats, with current endeavours including the new Wembley Stadium and the redevelopment of St Pancras for the Channel Tunnel rail link.

Basic issues

But there are more fundamental problems. In the past ten years, the number of pupils being awarded A-levels in the three subjects offering the obvious route towards a tertiary engineering qualification have fallen - maths by 16 per cent, physics by 22 per cent and chemistry by 15 per cent. Over the same period, computing A-level awards are up 175 per cent. The number of chartered engineers in the UK has fallen over the past decade from 197,375 to 190,402.

In higher education, engineering and technology are seen as the poor relations to arts courses, believes Beverly La Ferla, editor of bimonthly magazine Engineering Management. 'It's a perception problem,' she says.

'The media and arts are around us all the time - music, video, TV, journalists, presenters. But kids don't see engineering. That's compounded by the fact that science GCSEs and A-levels are too theoretical and not practical enough.'

The gender gap paints the starkest of pictures: just one per cent of schoolgirls aspire to become an engineer - and only three per cent of the professional engineering population is female. In ethnicity terms too, the sector has some work to do to develop a broad appeal. In the past four surveys of registered engineers, fewer than three per cent of respondents described themselves as anything other than 'white'.

To its credit, the engineering profession seems to have worked hard to identify the problems. But it is short on solutions. The industry could do worse than target educators. A 2003 report by Bath University found that even science, technology and maths teachers were unclear how to channel their pupils towards engineering as a career, and were unsure of what qualifications were required.

Although many institutions are conscious of the need to engage with younger audiences, the Engineering Council recently suggested that young people may be 'less informed about engineering than they were in the 1970s'. If true, engineering must be one of the very few professions to have cocooned itself from the expansion of the PR and comms sector. The Engineer Online deputy editor Jason Ford agrees, saying: 'In the UK, except for bigger companies such as BAE Systems, companies are quite poor at promoting themselves.'

Split sector

For professional communicators, there is major work to do to change perceptions.

Engineering might have a reputation as a grubby trade, but more than half of all engineers don't work in the manufacturing or construction sector.

And they are well represented at the top of the business tree - within the FTSE 100, 28 per cent of directorships are held by qualified engineers, compared with only 20 per cent by accountants.

Their skills are clearly transferable at a high level and even during the height of the dotcom boom, 16 top executives in the FTSE 100 were engineers. Proof, you would think, that engineering can be sexy - or at least promoted as such.

Part of the problem is message fragmentation: with civil, mechanical, transport, marine and chemical sectors to name a few, there are around 35 institutions representing different aspects of the engineering industry.

'That does not lend itself to effective communication,' says Royal Academy of Engineering director of comms Tom McLaughlan. 'Maybe even Alastair Campbell would have a tough time.'

It is accepted that an amalgamation must come. Engineering is the remit of Lord Sainsbury, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Science and Innovation, and he is urging greater collaboration between bodies.

Quite apart from addressing issues of ethnicity, gender and education, engineering PROs must also work hard to explain why engineering still matters. 'What counts in terms of quality of life and wealth creation is applying research, so the task for us is to unpick engineering in its social context,' says McLaughlan. 'Mention engineering and people think of Bob the Builder. They think of grease and sleeves rolled up - not of creating materials that will enable deaf people, for example, to hear again.'

'It is an uphill task,' admits Clarke. 'I don't think anyone knows what an engineer does.' That would appear to be a sensible place to start.

PUBLIC ATTITUDE TO ENGINEERS

- There are 190,402 chartered engineers in the UK, a fall of 3.8 per cent over the past ten years.

- The 'Science, Engineering and Technology Survey' in 2000 found that fewer British people regarded science and engineering as a good career than in 1978. But four out of five people agreed that 'Britain needs to develop science and technology to enhance its national competitiveness'. More than two thirds of people believed professional engineers 'do a lot to help the economy of this country'.

- In 2003 a report for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council showed the engineering and physical sciences-related sectors accounted for 30 per cent of GDP, 40 per cent of all investment and 75 per cent of all industrial research and development.

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