The engineering community needs to learn lessons from the retail and media worlds in communicating what it does and why it matters, argues Barrie Weaver FRSA.
In 2012 a young man, perceived by many as a dour automaton unreservedly poured out his human side and won the hearts and minds of a once indifferent public. In 2013, the same young man, watched by over 17million TV viewers, delivered a seemingly impossible, long awaited dream for Britain. Engineering can be likened to this pre-2012 young Scot. It too is perceived as dour. It too must capture the minds of the greater public if it is to attract the best talent and simply keep up with demand, let alone deliver against the nation’s dream.
Having been out of favour with successive governments there is now a growing realisation; prompted no doubt by the demise of the financial sector and our staggering national debt levels, that engineering is the route for growth and financial stability. It already forms a major part of our GDP with turnover in engineering businesses for the year ending March 2011 at three times the size of the retail sector: £1.06 trillion or 23.9% of the turnover of all UK enterprises. Some 5.4 million people are employed across 542,440 companies, some of which are world leading and highly innovative, others form the bedrock of a broad manufacturing base. Together they are a crucial part of our economy and society.
Yet and here comes the rub: how many of them can you name? Even more importantly do you know what they do or make? Aside from a few high profile names - Rolls Royce, JCB, Jaguar Land Rover, Dyson - the vast majority of our population know very little about this important part of our economy.
Not surprising then that the take up of engineering subjects by students and in particular girls, is at an all-time low. Last year 400 girls chose to enroll for engineering courses yet 58,600 are learning to be health and welfare workers. If parents, teachers and even career advisors, know little about what our engineers get up to they are hardly going to encourage students into the sector.
Right now Britain needs at least 100,000 engineering graduates every year. Currently there is a shortfall of 42%. Of those who do graduate in engineering more than a quarter choose occupations outside engineering and technology lured away by the financial or media worlds.
Engineering institutions and government have tried to boost the skills base through initiatives based on grants or scholarships, yet still the take-up of engineering courses remains desperately low. Whilst casting around for reasons for the short fall in interest in engineering, the sector itself seems to be overlooking the fact that a key part of the problem lies at their very feet.
Much of our engineering is high-tech, very specialised, and often part of a sophisticated supply chain. Most are business-to-business organisations; what they do, or make, lies well outside the day-to-day experiences of the vast majority of us. In comparison with German engineering companies, we are highly unlikely to see their products on any high street.
These companies tend to be data driven, rarely developing the ability to communicate what they do or make to the general public. It is not seen as necessary to doing business. They communicate their work using complex jargon in terms of specification and technical performance, usually with scant reference to the people within the company or the social value of what they do. This problem is not new and as the technology becomes ever more sophisticated so the gulf between engineering and public understanding has widened. The end result is that 99% people, including politicians and journalists, cannot understand what the majority of our engineering businesses do.
This impasse has created indifference on the part of editors, TV producers and the media in general; who are the critical links in giving engineering a big voice and without their support the negative spiral is perpetuated.
What our engineering companies need is an Andy Murray Moment. Prior to Wimbledon 2012 Murray came across as reticent, even robotic, in his quest for success. Then on losing the Final he revealed the passion and emotions that drove him and in so doing he probably increased his fan base ten fold.
Now I am not advocating an outpouring of tearful emotion on the part of MDs of British engineering but instead that the community sees the importance of presenting what they do in human terms, ones that are tangible to a mass audience. They need to communicate the value of their work to society, the challenges to be met and the social interaction that drives the workforce. As engineer and Vice Chancellor of Surrey University, Sir Christopher Snowden puts it: "If we don’t communicate well as a community, how can we expect the general public to understand the value of what we add to society?"
Barrie Weaver is an industrial designer living in London. During the course of his 30-year career he has designed a diverse range of products for blue chip companies in 14 countries.