How to make UK engineering great again

The UK’s engineering industry is facing a skills shortage of unprecedented levels – if we need 1.8 million people trained by 2025, they can’t all be white males[1].

The engineering heroes of the 19th century left monuments which we still use and enjoy today.  Just think of Brunel’s Great Western Railway and Thomas Telford’s Menai suspension bridge.  However, the glory days are long since gone in the UK with engineering being seen as an unattractive career.  This is not helped by workers with limited education and training calling themselves engineers. 

Compare this with Germany where engineering is a high status profession.  The title Diplom-Inginieur is the highest non-doctoral qualification and is proudly placed on business cards.  Engineers are often on company boards and also become chief executives. 

In the UK, accountants are much more prevalent in senior positions. It is not surprising that the board’s outlook is much more short-term and risk averse.  Brunel would have had a much shorter career, had accountants been as prominent in the Victorian era, due to the high cost of being a pioneer. 

Our statues of engineers are often placed out of the way.  For instance, it is very easy to pass the statue of Robert Stephenson, the father of the railways, outside Euston station without noticing it.  Brunel looks rather forlorn as if his train has just been cancelled, sitting on platform 8 at Paddington.  Compare this to the photograph of him heroically standing in front of huge chains.  Our largest railway statue is in fact of two lovers embracing at St Pancras station.  Catching Eurostar to Paris, perhaps?

Why not give the statues of engineers greater prominence in stations?  They could be near audio visual displays of the many railway careers in mechanical, electrical and civil engineering, to name but a few.  The programmes could show young engineers and particularly encourage more women to enter the profession.  These displays could be sponsored by employers such as Network Rail, Bombardier, Hitachi and Siemens. 

This would require careful planning and design to find space in crowded stations.  However, Kings Cross and Waterloo have been expanded to increase the amount of retail floor space.  Why not show the same ingenuity to promote engineering?  The new Euston station is still on the drawing board. 

The same approach could be adopted in airports. Sir Frank Whittle, the inventor of the jet engine, should be honoured with a statue at London Airport.  The plaque should also state his boss rejected the jet engine because he thought it was theoretically impossible.  This is why the Germans built the first jet aircraft even though they invented it after us.  

 Honouring engineers would be a big first step.  However, more will need to be done to make engineering great again.  Investment needs to be encouraged.  Corporate governance in the private sector will also need to change because boards are only judged on last quarter’s results, which deters investment and the employment of engineers.  The government has made small steps in this direction.  It is proposing to make it harder for companies to be taken over without an adequate chance to defend themselves, so that they can plan a bit further ahead. 

Making progress in schools to improve the performance of young people in mathematics, science and technology is vitally important because unless you have enough potential students with the right core knowledge, increasing the university places will not help.  Perhaps this could be achieved by learning programmes at weekends and holidays, making these subjects more fun and experiential.  Given the debate about abolishing fees, a good place to start is STEM subjects, which will send a very powerful message to potential students and schools.

Works Cited

Pozniak, H. (2017, June 6 ). Education STEM Awards 2017. Retrieved September 27, 2017, from

Posted by George Blair on October 5th 2017

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