Protecting, reclaiming or renaming engineering?

Whatever you think of the idea of an "ingeniator", Elena Rodriguez-Falcon is clear that engineering has an image and a recruitment problem.

Elena Rodriguez-Falcon is President and Chief Executive Officer at the New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering (NMITE)

I came to the UK nearly 25 years ago from Mexico. Throughout my academic career, I have worked tirelessly to change perceptions of engineering, to encourage future generations to consider the opportunities of such an amazing discipline, and to attract more women to the profession.

I have a clear motivation, asides from my own as an engineer, to inspire young people and their parents to consider this profession – my current role is as President and CEO of a newly launched higher education institution, in Hereford, focused on training engineers, NMITE.

But, despite the fact that year-on-year the UK runs campaigns to raise awareness of engineers, many of which are successful on certain metrics, I have come to the conclusion that we have not yet changed perceptions about engineering – nor fully explained why the world needs more engineers or what it really means to be an engineer.

Throwing stones

A few weeks ago , I decided to share these thoughts which were published in an article and editorial in The Times. I argued that the engineering profession needed to consider the opportunity to rebrand itself in order to change the pervasive perceptions in the UK that engineers fix boilers, cars, washing machines, and so on. Important jobs but not those of professional engineers.

I suggested that perhaps we should go back to the Latin roots of the word for engineer, and use “ingeniator” instead. This would bring the UK in line with the word used in many countries, where the profession is valued and celebrated, and where there is a high take up at higher education level.

And then I watched, listened and learned from people’s reactions. Many agreed that there is a problem in terms of the presentation of engineering, some were deeply frustrated that engineering is not a protected title in this country, whilst others would settle for the profession stopping people using the title engineer if you are not qualified as such. Some argued that simply changing the word in English was not the answer – “it will not catch on” – some thought I had made the word up, and a few even asked whether I (as a Mexican academic) had the right to challenge the English language.

Others wrote to me personally to ask how they could help me change the name of the profession, willing to write to their professional bodies, and ready to begin a different type of campaign. One which could lead to a solution, but also might lead to divisions within the profession.

Some felt that I was trying to make engineering a more exclusive profession which was very definitely not my motivation. To me, it is about ensuring that the profession is understood by most of the population, which it palpably is not. In the UK, it helps if your opinions spark the interest of celebrities and/or fierce opponents – and I was happy to see that my opinions did both – some (deliberately?) misunderstanding my motivation and suggesting I might be full of myself and full of pomposity. I have been called many things in my life, but pompous hasn’t been one of them!

What began as a provocation to raise awareness of this noble profession, by looking at what it means to be an engineer, or even an ingeniator, has ended up raising more questions.

We still need more engineers

So, where does this leave us and where do we go from here?

What is evident is that I touched on a very sore point, one that goes beyond the desperate need to get more engineers trained. One that it is personal to those engineers who got in touch, and which I passionately believe should not be ignored any longer.

I have some sympathy with the idea that it shouldn’t really matter what engineers are called -= that what does matter is that we solve important problems and make a positive impact on people’s lives and the challenges facing the planet. And that diverting energy to debates about what to call engineers could potentially be seen as a waste of time.

But this misses out a key segment of the population, one that I engage with every day, and that is our future engineers. For them I really do believe we must think again and challenge ourselves about the abysmal gap in understanding about engineering and engineers in the UK. What could and should we do to get their engagement?

I remain a supporter of all engineering awareness-raising campaigns, and yet I am convinced that the step change we need to close the engineering skills gap has yet to be achieved. If we cannot reach these future engineers in ever increasing numbers, then surely we will have failed?

We are running out of time. We are plagued by pandemics, climate change, hunger, and the list goes on. We need desperately to solve the challenges we are facing, and to prevent those we cannot even imagine yet. But to do that, we need engineers, loads and loads of engineers. And this we have not yet succeeded in achieving.

So, I for one will always have plenty of time to talk about this, and I am wholeheartedly committed to assist this country to get more people inspired by engineers and to pursue this wonderful profession themselves. But I am also ready to provoke and stir debate. What can be more important?

This is a wicked problem, which is proving hard to solve. We are ingenious people, and I truly believe that we can find a solution, if we are open to change and new opinions and ideas.

8 responses to “Protecting, reclaiming or renaming engineering?

  1. I agree 100% of what you are saying. I get tired of seeing “Engineer” thrown around, almost to make it sound good. In Australia there is a campaign to make the term Engineer a protected title. I am sure in other European countries this is also the case. I have argued this for years with th IET, a lot of our members feel the same. It’s about time protecting our title became a legal requirement. I have also been involved with promoting STEM in schools. Its amazing to see young people realise that all the cool stuff they are playing with is actually “Engineering” We hope to change the perception of Engineers and engineering with our youngsters in schools so that it is a valuable career option.

  2. I would Suggest that someone who fixes your washing machine may be using engineering skills and traits, particularly if they are not swapping out a part. Perhaps it’s more about recognising the span of engineering influence into everything we do rather than trying to pigeon hole the description. In a similar way to medical doctors first sell the idea that engineers are important, then recognise specialisms.

  3. Start at the bottom.

    Engineering in many schools has a serious image problem. Unless you have the teaching staff with the background to inspire young people the subject area sadly becomes a dumping ground for the less academically able as the opinion of many in school management is still ‘craft for the daft’. We shouldn’t stop low ability students doing engineering of course, but whilst the more disruptive and intimidating students are in school workshops it can put off some of the more scientifically minded.

    The government also does not quantify Engineering with the EBacc and so students who might be gifted in the area but also in areas that count towards school league table positions and pass percentages (History, Geography etc) are often shepherded towards areas in the better interst of the school rather than the individual.

    I would rebrand the whole Design and Technology curriculum as Design and Engineering. Teach about industry, include practical and creative skills but also analytical.

    One of the issues we have as an education system is the siloing of subject from each other. Engineering involved as much science and maths as it does creativity. Why not teach part of the subject within that larger area but also give students a practical outlet for the theory they learn in maths and science? Food Technology is another good example of a subject that crosses a lot of boundaries, from maths and science to geography, art and cultural studies.

    Perhaps the ultimate goal should be a movement away from the ‘EBacc’ focus on ‘academic’ subject areas and instead an ‘Eng-Bacc’ which focuses on STEM but also creativity and problem solving through practical outcomes and the application of mathematical and scientific theory? Other sidelined creative subjects such as music and drama could easily be folded into such a qualification through looks at sound engineering as much as skill or how drama fits into history and english.

    1. Well said.

      In the past, the Engineering Professors’ Council has proposed to government that Design & Technology should be restyled as ‘Engineering, Design & Technology’ (or your version works just as well) and I’d maintain that this remain a good idea.

      However, D&T is underfunded in schools. It is expensive to teach, requiring specialist equipment, materials and a dedicated space. It requires qualified teachers (who could generally be earning more in industry) and there are health & safety considerations.

      Meanwhile, there are no incentives to schools to be good at teaching D&T and if it’s a choice between that and Maths, English or some other Ofsted priority, D&T will always lose.

      We do need better D&T and we need to rename it, but we also need to embed the application of science into science. When we talk about solving climate change in geography or industrial revolution in history or business innovation in economics or set design in drama or acoustics in music – and so on – we need to link it back to engineering (or ingeniation) as a key part of the story.

  4. A few quick points:
    – in English people assume that the root of the word “engineer” is “engine” rather than “ingenious” as it is in Romance languages.
    – The understanding of engineering in schools is low. It was never suggested to me in school that engineering was an option, but I’m glad to have spent much of my career in engineering.
    – The teaching of science puts off a lot of pupils and schools have to battle the perception of those who are good at maths and science being odd. Only in this country do people seem happy to boast that they are poor at maths whilst they wouldn’t boast of being illiterate.

  5. Boundary spanners have a tough time in systems based around silos of thought, whether it be a school department or a University Faculty. As a designer I notice we kind of cross boundaries when it suits us, and to me that is what good design can offer. I’ve witnessed so much success where this happens that I would not know where to start in terms of examples. Perhaps Set Squared where the Researcher to Innovator and ICure take a similar stance?

    In Welsh Schooling we have four new purposes and a section on skills integral to them. We also have new areas of learning excellence – which is all being questioned by professional bodies / silo thinkers. Change like this is tough but in my view very necessary, so keep on keeping on Elena, we have your back 😉

  6. I agree that there is a big problem with the way that Engineering is perceived in this country, and not just amongst young people dreaming about their futures, but in business itself. I left the profession because of the lack of a decent career path. Even within a company that provided cutting-edge electronics systems to military customers, engineers didn’t seem to be valued as much as project managers and accountants, and this was reflected in the relative seniority and salaries. I can’t overstate how brilliant (ingenious you might say) some of the engineers were and yet it was very difficult to get much reward for their achievements. The issue seems to be systemic and very difficult to resolve, but the name change could help

  7. Thank you for getting the conversation going again Elena – as the proud parent of a daughter training to be an engineer, I think anything which shines a light on the lack of engineers is a good thing. There don’t seem to be many women leaving comments about your article. Maybe if the word engineer still conjures up the image of a man in a boiler suit, a new word might just change the picture? In 1981 I remember hearing Peggy Seeger sing ‘I was gonna be an engineer” and reflecting on how wonderful it was to be meeting women studying engineering – I never thought forty years on I would be working in universities still struggling to recruit to engineering courses and still recruiting mainly male students…

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