Article - Issue 9, August 2001

The rebirth of British engineering

Dr Robert Hawley CBE DSc FRSE FREng

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There is a revolution underway in British engineering, and it is good news. It started slowly but the pace of change is accelerating fast. Like most changes, before long it will be moving faster and going further than any of us might have predicted. It is cause for great optimism.

Underlying this rebirth of British engineering is a fundamental redefinition of what engineering is. And from that redefinition will come – it is already happening – a reappraisal of its importance, its characteristics, and its attractiveness as a career. The days of bemoaning the profession’s lack of status or the failure of the public to give engineering credit for all it does are coming to an end.

The key that has unlocked this optimistic assessment is the analysis and understanding we now have of the nature of the ‘wider engineering community’. That understanding comes from a major study commissioned jointly by The Royal Academy of Engineering and the Engineering Council for the ‘Hawley Group’ (set up by the Minister for Science, Lord Sainsbury, to review the role of the Engineering Council). The study was conducted by Sir Robert Malpas CBE FREng and a small team.

Their report The Universe of Engineering showed us that there are at least two million people active in the UK economy who are engaged in work requiring significant levels of technology or engineering skills. Only just over a quarter of them – some 600,000 people – belong to the engineering institutions. Of those, only some 200,000 are UK-resident professional engineers, by which I mean those on the Engineering Council register as Chartered or Incorporated engineers, or Engineering Technicians.

What has now happened is that we have recognised that all of the two million are part of a wider engineering and technology community. This wider community includes a huge range of wealth-creating, exciting and innovative forms of engineering which dramatically change the shape and character of the sector. As this understanding spreads, perceptions of engineering by non-engineers, be they politicians, economists, teachers, careers advisers or the public at large, will change too.

It is worth reflecting on the composition and character of the ‘wider community’.

First, it is firmly ‘knowledge based’. It depends on, and utilises, sometimes at breakneck speed, the ever-expanding body of scientific and engineering knowledge to create technologies, products and solutions that were unthinkable 20 years ago.

Secondly, it encompasses all the areas from which the next generation of technological innovations will come. These include nanotechnology, aerospace, biotechnology, genomics, and media technology. We did not foresee the IT revolution and we were not well prepared for it. We can prepare for the next round of revolutions in these areas, but the reality is that we will probably not foresee exactly when or where the next breakthroughs will come.

Thirdly, the people who work in these areas are not like traditional engineers. They are more likely to think of themselves as technologists than engineers. They are increasingly multidisciplinary. They need – but often do not have – broad-based business skills as well as high-level science and engineering qualifications. They have few worries about status – which they regard as earned through practical and commercial success, and rewarded financially, rather than through the award of letters after their names.

And finally they have a set of problems, whether as individuals or as businesses, which sound much more familiar to those of us who form part of the mainstream engineering profession.

They are concerned about keeping up to date, and demonstrating they are up to date, with new techniques and fast-changing knowledge. They are concerned by the problem of knowing whether someone really has the skills for the job. They are increasingly troubled by a shortfall in the number of people with engineering and technology skills, which becomes worse all the time as more and more businesses become dependent on technology and knowledge.

We have a much clearer picture of this wider community of engineers and technologists not only through the work done by Sir Robert Malpas, looking at The Universe of Engineering, but also from independent research carried out by the Hawley Group. Because the work is firmly based on the views and needs of the market place – the real customers for engineers and their skills – it has given us the clear sense of direction needed to bring about the ‘rebirth of British engineering’.

What are we doing about it?

Earlier this year, following strong Government endorsement of the Hawley Group report, it was agreed that we should establish a new ‘Engineering and Technology Board’ – the ETB. The aim is to make sure that the UK has in place the arrangements to support, listen to, and where appropriate represent the interests of this vital ‘wider community’.

We are now in the process of establishing the ETB and aim to have it formally up and running by October this year. It is an ambitious timetable but many would say that recognition of the need for such a body is overdue, so we must now make up for lost time. It is also clear that we are creating something genuinely new and distinct. It must not and will not be like an institution, or like today’s Engineering Council. We know, from sometimes bitter experience, that those structures and methods of working do not in general appeal to people in the ‘wider community’. If they did, many more of the 1.5 million who do not belong to the profession would have chosen to do so. The ETB will have to work differently and reflect a very different culture and style if it is to succeed.

One of the many positive results of the work of recent months has been the achievement of clarity over the roles of the different engineering organisations. In the past there has frequently been concern that the various bodies overlapped and duplicated each other. In the new scheme of things the roles and target audiences of each organisation fall neatly and convincingly into place.

  • The Royal Academy of Engineering is about engineering and engineering excellence.

  • The engineering institutions are about the needs and development of individual engineers.

  • The Engineering Council – or its successor – is about the setting, auditing and regulating of standards for professional engineers.

  • And the ETB is about the needs and promotion of the wider engineering and technology community.

All of us will need to work together, and the ETB must have as a primary role the facilitation and encouragement of such co-operation. Achieving it will be much easier than in the past because roles are clearer, and there is now an external focus on the market place and the customer to help us pull together.

With all of this now underway, optimism about British engineering is well founded. ‘Rebirth’ is not too strong a word for the changes now gathering pace.

there are at least two million people in the UK economy who are engaged in work requiring significant levels of technology or engineering skills

we are creating something genuinely new and distinct

Dr Robert Hawley CBE DSc FRSE FREng

Chairman, Engineering Council

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