There’s no denying that engineering is a broad umbrella term which covers an untold number of different processes and professions. Whilst those in the industry are undoubtedly more familiar with the wide variety of possible applications, the spectrum of engineering has historically alluded the general public. This has led to engineering being dubbed the ‘stealth profession’ – that is, lots of people are unfamiliar with what an engineer actually does!
Within recent years, the UK Skills Shortages list has played host to a plethora of engineering-based occupations. Whilst the exact catalyst for this shortage is the subject of speculation – and perhaps not attributed to one specific factor – it could certainly be argued that a lack of awareness could be somewhat accountable.
The Stealth Profession:
Although many aspects of everyday life are made possible by engineering, the term in itself is still something of an enigma to the general public. Indeed, it’s easy to take for granted the devices and appliances we use, our transport and our infrastructure, without ever considering the various design and engineering feats that have made these ideas a reality. Naturally, there is an underlying lack of awareness – it goes without saying that people cannot be inspired to become engineers if they only have a vague understanding of it as a subject.
Its nickname is a testament to the level of obscurity surrounding engineering and it cannot be a coincidence that the Skills Shortages list mirrors these kinds of professions. But with recent government drives to garner wider interest in engineering, do the same levels of ambiguity still preside over it?
Lifting the Veil:
The past few years have witnessed numerous programmes aimed to inspire the younger generations to consider engineering as a career. Tomorrow’s Engineers is one such programme, which presents engineering as a career choice to school-aged children through the medium of interactive workshops and challenges. 2018 was also named the ‘Year of Engineering’, showing that there is a genuine effort being made to heighten awareness of the various niches assigned to engineering – indeed, at this point it is crucial to the survival of the UK’s industry.
Whilst this addresses the generations that are currently of school-age, there is a huge disparity in knowledge amongst the working-age population - and it is this disparity which has led us to the skills gap in the first place. The favouring of academic employment routes amongst Gen X, Millenials and Gen Z has seen vocational paths – such as engineering apprenticeships – widely shunned, leaving many unfamiliar about the role of engineering in society and how all-encompassing it is.
Is it Enough?
Although government-backed programmes to raise awareness are certainly a huge step in the right direction, there is still a lot that needs to be done in order to replenish the level of engineering professionals in the UK. Largely, this needs to start at home – and there is little chance of the problem repairing itself if a majority of parents are not at least somewhat familiar with the fundamentals of engineering.
Unfortunately, a stigma seems to preside that academic education is the primary route to success – whilst those within engineering know that this is simply not true, there is more work to do if we are to shake this mindset from the parent-age population at large. It’s amongst this demographic that engineering remains the ‘stealth’ profession – a dangerous moniker for the industry that could easily be inherited by the next generation of would-be engineers.
My younger brother – now an engineer himself – spent a lot of his childhood constructing with the Lego and Meccano sets he was gifted for birthdays; a pastime that shaped his later interest in engineering as a career choice. Perhaps as parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, we should be giving children better access to constructive play as a means of early encouragement. Compounded with programmes such as Tomorrow’s Engineers and the Year of Engineering, this might be enough to start making considerable progress towards reviving engineering as a viable career choice.
If the uncertainty surrounding an engineer’s role is to be dispelled in time to inspire the next generation, then a two-fold approach from both schools and families is vitally important. It’s not enough to leave it to education authorities – instead, front-line action is required, which also means that adult generations need to take it upon themselves to understand the scope of engineering.
Whilst a ‘stealth’ profession may sound somewhat glamorous and exciting, this nickname simply highlights the wider issue – that is, nobody can be interested in becoming an engineer if they are unfamiliar with what an engineer does. The sizeable scope of the field is more than enough to appeal to a larger audience; therefore, the focus needs to be placed upon tapping into that audience, in order to educate them on the possibilities that come with such a career.
Although overnight change will not be possible, we may be on the precipice of dispersing heightened awareness surrounding engineering – and not a moment too soon for our esteemed, yet deserted industry.