Poor Public Perceptions of Engineering: It doesn’t need to be this way

Ask anyone, even a young child who is beginning primary school, what an accountant does for a living, or what a medical doctor does, or what a banker does for a living, or what a scientist does, and chances are you will get a very clear description of their professions.

Go into any shopping mall, and ask a couple of people what an engineer does, and chances are you are likely to get blank stares. Most don’t know, and worse, most people don’t even think it is worth knowing at all.

Even the few who think they know, they will most likely tell you that an engineer is a muscular man who toils hard, doing back-breaking, unrewarding, and unfullfilling work like construction work, or moving around huge blocks of steel and iron in some dark places called factories. The simple point is that engineering remains largely unknown, and largely unacknowledged.

Ask anyone from the engineering community why this is the case, and you will receive several competing answers. The commonest one is that other people who do not deserve the title of engineer at all, people like repairs men, construction workers, and locomotive drivers, have usurped the name for their own use in a bid to look more glamorous in public.

Others suggest that the public know little about engineering because we haven’t told them what it is. Yet still, others believe that it is likely that most people might know about engineering, but sincerely believe that it is not for them – it’s too hard, or it’s too complicated for them. Others turn the blame on the media for selectively promoting other professions as “cool” and “desirable”, whilst denigrating engineering.

All these suggestions are partially true, but it’s not the whole truth. You don’t see the medical profession running up and down the streets begging for people to know them. No, not even the accountants or the almost universally hated bankers do this. Why? The answer is simple – we all know, or to put it more accurately, we are all confident that we know what they do, and most importantly, we are all quite sure we know what it takes to be one of them.

What about engineering? Apart from us, the engineers, and a few other concerned individuals, noone knows why we are called engineers, noone has ever seen us going about our work, and noone can say with certainty that we are part of the community. Us and our work are completely hidden away from the public. Yet the results of our work are all out there, yet they don’t bear our names.

Engineering is where it is because for the past 200 years, our society has been fighting hard to put it into the shadows. Is this a preposterous proposition? Not really. Just consider 17th and 18 century Britain. The crafts industry was big. Creativity and innovation were the hallmark of the day. You didn’t have to have deep knowledge of mathematics and physics to develop the capability of looking at the societal problems of the day and proposing solutions – be it proposing designs for bridges, developing more efficient methods for smelting iron and producing steel, designing faster and bigger ships, or developing machines to take over the back-breaking work in the fields and in the cotton mills.

All you needed was the desire to make things better, the willingness and grit to try out ideas until you achieved your goal, and the support of friends and family who would engage with you in surprisingly technical conversations at the kitchen table. Out of all this collective enterprise at creativity came the industrial revolution, and out of it came the unimaginable wealth and power that turned Britain into a world power.

Then along the way, as the industrial age took pace, the generation of ideas and innovation became relegated to the workplace where a few people, men mostly, assumed responsibility for this task. This was such that by the middle of the twentieth century, creative tasks like design and problem solving had been taken away from the general public. In their place, the public were sold the idea that engineering was not for everyone. It was for the geeky elite who thrived on stomach-churning mathematical theories and obscure, unfathomable physics texts.

Goods now came packaged and ready to use, and they bore the names of faceless companies; even essential services were now carried out by faceless companies. Telecommunications, television, radio, the Internet, Wi-Fi, all the wonders of modern day life now all reach the home bearing the name of some large company. The names of the individuals who brought these things to life are nowhere to be seen.

Even our beloved Jaguar, we don’t hear anything about the men and women who passioantely spend their lives making that great British icon better and better. Its just Jaguar, just Land Rover, no person’s name, nothing, as if all these iconic symbols of British innovation and creativity are being produced by some non-human demi-god.

Today everyone now realises that we were sold a lie. Engineering is not for the few. It’s for everyone. Think of the early days of aviation engineering. Everyone wanted to solve the problem of flight, from eminent professors, practising lawyers, peasant farmers and labourers. And the two people who conclusively solved the problem were the Wright brothers, – who, incidentally, were basically young, poorly educated brothers who repaired and made bicycles for a living. Their success was in part down to their perseverance, as well as being the natural outcome of the intense debates and conversations on flight which were taking place at the time.

Here in the UK we have designated 2018 the year of Engineering. Government departments, the business sector, engineering institutions and the universities are all involved. Our goal is to bring engineering to the community. My sincere hope is that we won’t just focus on awareness. I would urge everyone involved to learn from football, our so called beautiful game. Come Saturday, we are all glued on radio and television, listening and watching top flight football. In between we argue about who is the best player, coach or referee, and we passionately offer our advice on who should be taken off the field, and which manager should be fired. In between this, we practise our own game, and we play competitively against other local teams. Football is a passion for the whole community, and we engage with it at all levels. Noone is shut out, and this should be our aim all this year – simply this, to re-engage society with engineering, and to stoke once again that spirit of creativity and innovation that only engineering can bring out.

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