“Science can amuse and fascinate, but it is engineering that changes the world.”—Isaac Asimov,
Much has been made in the two years since Brexit that Britain can forge new trade relations with the world. When asked what form these will take, the answer is often “services”. But a century ago, Britain dominated world trade with the product of its factories. “Made in Britain” was a badge of pride and reliability. Our ships and trains moved most of the world’s goods and travellers. What happened?
Although some leading specialists survive (Rolls-Royce in Derby; Weir Pumps in Glasgow), we now buy cars from Korea, trains from Germany and electronics made just about everywhere but here.
Though there is no single reason for this decline from prominence, the largest factor is the embedded disdain in Britain’s social psyche for the engineer. The Royal Academy of Engineering had a focus group to 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, etc. were all seen as positive; an engineer was seen as negative.
This might be explained by our ingrained social history. While the prodigious achievements of engineering giants of the Victorian age like Thomas Telford and Isambard Kingdom Brunel were changing the world, the people for whom they made pots of money did not regard them as fit for polite society. While a practice on Harley Street, chambers at the Inns of Court or being “something in the City” were all acceptable occupations for scions of old stock or noubeau riche alike, some shoddy shipyard, Yorkshire pit or Mancunian mill were not, however remunerative.
These worlds did overlap, as with the Fitzwilliams of Wentworth House, but the salons of Belgravia were not frequented by those competent with slide rule or theodolite. Which is a pity. Because the decline in Britain’s manufacturing and its present need to import most finished goods can be traced back to this.
This was an era when “success”, whether as Prime Minister or Company chair or Permanent Secretary often involved a public school and reading “The Greats” at Oxford. There is an argument that study of Pliny, Pindar and Plutarch sharpens a mind that can then be applied to almost any managerial task of sufficient status. But I’m not sure any would want to cross a bridge they had just built.
Other countries—Europe and America in particular—were far more pragmatic and regarded those who could design and build things that made money while advancing civilisation were deserving of the acclaim and social status of those who kept their manicures spotless while counting other people’s money or quoting the law at length.
The unfortunate result was that Krupp could make better steel cheaper and Bugatti could make sleeker cars go faster. As engineers were seldom represented on boards, riveted ships were outclassed by welded ships and the North British Locomotive company kept on building the same fine steam engines until it went out of business. From Edwardian times, right into the fifties, underinvestment in R&D was chronic across all industries, meaning British Leyland cars went the way of Yarrow ships and De Havilland planes.
It is not easy to become a professional engineer. Unlike many white-collar professions, you cannot “blague” it or people die. You must have earned a university degree in a hard numerate science or technology subject, gained several years’ experience working in an engineering discipline and, having gain recognition as a chartered engineer (CEng), might gain entry to the Royal Academy of Engineering, regarded as a major professional institution along the lines of the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. i.e. nothing to be sniffed at.
Every technological product—most of which have much value-added and are expensive—whether cars, computers, consumer electronics, white goods, etc., or the aeroplanes, container ships or trucks they were brought in, in fact, all that supports our modern world, has been designed by engineers. As an example, to build a modern mobile phone system, now vital to every other profession, all the components—hand sets, transmitters, networks, masts, power grids, delivery systems, etc.—were all designed by teams of engineers who have revolutionised our lives.
But Britain has a problem. When you ask the average member of the British public about engineers, 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 designed anything. He will be clever at finding faults and fixing them and to the average member of the public remains an ‘engineer’.
The problem lies with language. At first, there seems no problem in translation. In English, we have engineer/technician. Other languages seem the same: French: ingénieur/technicien; Italian: Ingenero/tecnico; German: Ingenieur/techniker; Swedish: ingenjör/tekniker. So, what’s the problem?
It was identified in the focus group above and the perception of who wears the boiler suit. Elsewhere (including America, Canada and now the Far East), the distinction between the two terms I as clear as between a dentist and their assistant. And whether in Boston, Berlin or Beijing, an engineer is accorded high social status, professional salary and therefore attracts bright young people to the profession.
There is no reason for British social attitudes to be so Victorian to the point of economic self-harm. Britain has three of the top ten universities in the world for engineering (Cambridge at #3, Oxford at #6 and Imperial College at #7). But it ads only one more in the top 50, whereas USA has almost two dozen, China half a dozen, a couple from each of Germany, Korea, Japan, Italy, Canada, Singapore (!!), Switzerland and Australia.
What is clear is that, while Britain boasts world-class education in a few elite universities, the perception remains that the technical colleges made into universities after a half century, still don’t compete on the world stage in engineering excellence. This may be due to their academic ethos. But, more likely, this is due to Britain’s best and brightest still being influenced by ambitious (but blinkered) parents still thinking reading the Greats the best possible preparation for success, and that engineers are horny-handed types with oil under their fingernails who would show up to their dinner party in a boiler suit.