I am firmly of the belief that if we want to attract more people into engineering we need to inspire them, we need to give them greater freedom to think and explore what engineering might be about for them – and we have to change the way we think about ourselves.
It continues to trouble me that we have more than 40 separate institutions here in the UK all representing different branches of engineering.
Because, for me, it doesn’t reflect the reality of working as an engineer. Some of the greatest things about working as an engineer are, in no particular order: the ability to work in multifunctional teams; the ability to cross boundaries between disciplines; and the ability to learn new skills and technical competences throughout our career, which may take us far from the strict areas of the discipline we started out studying after we left school.
I studied chemical engineering (and am a Fellow of my institution) but these days I think of myself, first and foremost, as an engineer - and I know that I think like an engineer.
What does that mean?
It means I enjoy solving problems, I look for solutions to really tricky problems when I am at home and at work, and I see things as interconnected systems. I read about new technologies, and I think about how these might be applied to deliver benefit to the world in the future while considering what some of the risks are that need to be addressed at the same time to avoid unintended outcomes. I am – we are- ingenious.
Why is this important?
Because it should make us think about the routes we set out for people to become engineers in the future. Being ingenious doesn’t necessarily mean needing to be good at physics and maths at school; it doesn’t mean having to go to university to become an engineer; and it doesn’t mean that the discipline you choose to study at 18 or 19 defines the sort of engineer you are for the rest of your life.
We have a great opportunity to redefine what we mean by engineering and to make it more attractive, more accessible and better understood. But we can only do that if we challenge some of the traditional thinking and edifices of the current set up.
One obvious opportunity which is right in front of us is addressing the challenge of ensuring we have the skills to make the most of the opportunities presented by industrial digitalisation. Old-think would lead us to see digital engineering as a new skill or branch of the profession rather than what I believe it must be - which is an essential part of every engineer’s training and knowledge.
Much of what I tried to do during my time as Chair of the Health and Safety Executive was focussed on getting everyone to see that they had a role to play in health and safety – it wasn’t all about a set of health and safety professionals to whom the rest of us referred/delegated everything. As Chair of Semta, I see a similar challenge in getting the many other organisations with whom we work to look and think again about how we define skills needs and competences for the present and future.
So on industrial digitalisation, we’ve started some great work on a skills matrix which needs building upon, sharing and gaining buy-in from across the sector. It needs to be a living document so that it remains current and relevant, but it is an important step on the journey to redefining engineering in a more flexible and enlightened way. Let’s make this one of many steps we take towards a more united engineering sector with a more unified approach to skills issues.