Comment & Analysis

New-found respect for engineering

Ben Hargreaves

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We must hope the photo opportunities and fine words are underpinned by substance

We must hope the photo opportunities and fine words are underpinned by substance

As the latest edition of PE points out this week these are unusual times for engineering, which is enjoying a recognition by the British establishment that has seldom been the case over the past 20 years or so.

The roots of this new found favour lie in the severity of the financial crisis and the government's response to it – both under the leadership of Gordon Brown and latterly David Cameron, who saw a replica of the Bloodhound land speed record challenge vehicle in Downing Street itself at the end of June. Business secretary Vince Cable, following on from work carried out by Lord Mandelson in the last days of the Labour regime, has certainly put the miles in while travelling the length and breadth of the country to bolster the manufacturing, engineering and innovation cause with pithy words and photo calls. There's a seal of approval that was lacking in the first years of the new century and prior to the events of 2008.

Rebalancing the economy is likely to take time, of course, but in the meantime the notion that the engineering institutions, lobby groups and major manufacturers have the ear of the great and the good is welcome. At the other end of the societal spectrum, the spreading of the message of the Big Bang science fair to increasing numbers of children gives hope that a new generation may respond to the call for a greater number of engineers, male and female, in the years ahead. Some believe we are now at a critical point: the future of the profession is balanced on a fulcrum, with decline on one side and a prosperous future as a key part of the economy on the other. David Falzani, president of Sainsbury Management Fellows, says it has “never been so important” to portray a positive image of engineering to young people. Paul Jackson, chief executive of Engineering UK, says: “We're at a critical time.” The organisation has successfully fed into a report which aims to improve the National Careers Service, which is arguably, er, underemployed – some 34,000 calls were made to the organisation last year. Meanwhile there is high youth unemployment, and businesses are saying they lack youngsters with STEM skills, Jackson points out. “This is a really critical time for us in the sector to make sure we've got our act together and that the foundations for growth are there.” The aim would be for interested parties to work together with the education system, with government providing practical support.

The Big Bang is now not just an event, but a “movement”, Jackson says. Falzani is acutely aware of the need to improve engineering's image so that we see it as “world-changing, emotionally involving, financially rewarding, exciting and challenging”. “It will challenge and reward you on an emotional and financial level and you can change the world.”

Rumours are now circulating that the status of engineering has made an impression on the thinking of government chief scientific adviser Sir Mark Walport, and will be publicly acknowledged in a soon-to-be-released report. If so, it will mark another notch on engineering's upward trajectory from yesterday's industry to sector of tomorrow.

Now we must hope the photo opportunities and fine words are underpinned by substance.

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