Whilst commentators endlessly discuss the glass ceiling faced by women in their careers, here in the UK, Engineers as a whole face a similar barrier – a SOCIAL ceiling.
A situation highlighted by the recent Government report ‘Elitist Britain’.
Chairman of the Commission, Alan Milburn underlines that the number of privately educated people in senior public roles had led to a “closed shop at the top”.
He adds “These institutions rely on too narrow a range of people, from too narrow a range of backgrounds, with too narrow a range of experiences, they behave in ways and focus on issues that are of salience to only a minority, not the majority in our society.”
We live in a society that revolves around the creations of science and engineering. Without them, we’d have no food or water, healthcare, communications or transport. Life would rapidly grind to a halt and anarchy soon prevail. Even music, art, literature and film rely on technology for their transmission.
And yet the Establishment fails to recognise the impact of engineering and science.
Only two of the 42 permanent secretaries, who lead the UK’s civil service, and none of our 23 current cabinet ministers have degrees in science or engineering. We have nearly 90 lawyers in the House of Commons, but only one research scientist.
So why does this matter to Engineering you ask?
Well if the people making government policies have little interest, let alone a passion for engineering, they’re unlikely to see it as valued and core to our future prosperity. Secondly those in media have tremendous influence over what we see and read through TV newspapers and magazines. If those influencers have been educated through a system which devalues engineering they are unlikely ever to make the subject central to discussions and features.
This misguided elitism starts at school.
Eton for example, has an annual intake of around 240 boys of which I am reliably informed around 8% show some initial interest in STEM type careers. Alas even from that low base, when it comes to the final choice, Engineering rarely features. With its long history not single engineer of renown has emerged from its hallowed doors. At another leading private school I’ve heard of parents with a child showing a fascination for engineering despondent at being unable to find the right support to help advance the child’s interest.
Within the private education sector alumni play a highly influential role when it comes to career guidance both for both teachers and students. Old boys/girls are welcomed to explain their careers, how they got there, the sort of work they do and the rewards they get both financially and socially. The result being that old elite values prevail creating a self-perpetuating cap on engineering.
The manner in which this operates is well expressed by George Edwards who at the age of 18 already has his first engineering product on sale.
“At my school” says George “there was no shortage of bankers, financiers, lawyers, management consultants, civil servants and media people to call upon to discuss and encourage us to follow similar career paths. But when it came to engineers there were only three.” As George laments “ and the same three were called upon year after year.”
With such an influential network to compete against it is hardly surprising that engineering continues to fail when it comes to attracting its due quota of the brightest and best connected minds.
The more the elite places emphasis on studying law, politics, banking and media and less on engineering then we are going nowhere as a society.
Richard Lamm, former Governor of Colorado, himself a lawyer, summed this up eloquently “The new economic world tells us that nations which train engineers will prevail over those which train lawyers. No nation has ever sued its way to greatness.”
Whilst the current Engineering Initiatives are welcome most are out of touch with the reality of engineering in the UK. They focus on the predictable handful of big name companies who have plenty of resources.
The vast majority of UK engineering firms employ less than 80 people. These are the companies that drive innovation across a multitude of industrial sectors and are also the first to suffer when the major players start their recruitment drives. They are the companies with the potential to grow and become international leaders. They are also the companies that require the most support in developing their young engineers whilst managing their overall business goals. Most importantly they are our only real hope for making significant inroads into the enormous national debt that burdens this country.
Let’s get some real support behind the backbone of UK manufacturing – the thousands of SME’s that have kept engineering alive here.