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Why is an engineer's status so low?

ALTHOUGH I regard myself as mostly a businessman these days, by profession I am an engineer. We engineers have a rather high opinion of ourselves; we know that to become a professional engineer you must have earned a university degree in a hard numerate science or technology subject and have gained several years' experience working in an engineering discipline - chemical, mechanical, software, civil, electrical, etc. This is what is required to gain recognition as a chartered engineer (CEng).

 

There is also a Royal Academy of Engineering, regarded as a major professional institution along the lines of the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

 

To be elected as a Fellow (FREng) you have to convince them that you have considerable experience as a reputable engineer and that you can subsequently be called upon by the Government and others for your opinions on complex issues such as energy or transport policies. There are around 1300 Fellows and up to 60 are elected each year.

 

Every technological product, whether cars, aeroplanes, computers, consumer electronics, phone networks, indeed practically everything that we buy, use, or consume in today's world has been designed by engineers.

 

The amount of engineering innovation required to build, say, a modern mobile phone system - the hand sets, transmitters, networks, information delivery systems, billing systems - have all been designed by huge teams of engineers and they collectively provide an amazing new service which has revolutionised our modern world.

 

So why, when you ask the average member of the British public about engineers, do they immediately think about the guy in a boiler suit who arrives in a van to fix problems with their phone/photocopier/boiler?

 

He is not an engineer. He is a technician. He will not have a university degree and will not be expected to design anything. He will be trained to identify faults and fix them, mostly by replacing malfunctioning sub-units with new ones. But to the average member of the public he remains an 'engineer'.

 

This was confirmed for me recently when I observed a focus group organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering to help assess the public's attitudes to their profession. The attendees were asked about their reaction when a young friend decides on their career - accountants, lawyers, doctors were all seen as mostly positive, but an engineer was seen as largely negative.

 

The problem seems to lie with language.

 

The term engineer in English is seen to derive from the noun 'engine', whereas in other European countries it is thought to be derived from the word 'ingenious'. Indeed, one focus group member, a Spanish national, said that in Spanish and Italian the words for technician and engineer were quite distinct.

 

This is also true in German and French.

 

This simple issue of improper terminology would seem to have a huge impact on our society. If some of our brightest young people see the essentially non-creative professions such as accountancy and law as preferable to the creative profession of engineering, our wealth creating economy stands to lose. In China or India it is very noticeable that a large proportion of students want to study engineering disciplines.

 

That's where they see the future for their careers and their economy.

 

Can we find a better word for the ingenious engineers?

 

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