For as long as most people can remember, engineering has been seen as the career choice of chronic nerds and has been weighed down by an image problem on a par with train spotting, the M25 and garden gnomes.
But now, like Clark Kent disappearing into a phone booth and emerging as Superman, engineering is set to become one of THE top careers for bright young Britons. Even now, ‘I’m an engineer, actually’ is catching on as a great opening line at all the best parties.
If you want wealth, prestige, the opportunity to pick and choose what part of the world you live and work in, then an engineering degree is clearly the starting point. Forget investment banking – it’s probably had its day and faces massive re-regulation anyway. Medicine? Well, if you really want to spend your life battling with the NHS bureaucracy then you go for it. What about the law? Great for a few, pretty rubbish for most quite honestly. Ask any jobbing solicitor struggling to meet their fee targets.
So why and, perhaps more importantly, how has engineering become such an attractive, well-rewarded profession? The very simple answer is that there is a huge demand for engineers, even in this difficult economic climate, but nothing like enough of them around.
The scarcity issue is easy to explain. Until Lincoln University opened its engineering school in 2012, there had not been a single new engineering department in the UK for 20 years. Indeed the number of students studying engineering at UK universities was fairly static until the mid 1990s.
Admittedly, the number of engineering and technology undergraduates in the UK has increased markedly over the last ten years. According to the Engineering UK 2011 report, there has been a 38% growth in the number of students starting engineering and technology degrees in Britain. But the EU average is a staggering 96% increase over the same period and in non-EU countries the growth is 54%. That, some would argue, says it all about why Britain does not have anything like enough qualified engineers.
The problem is exacerbated, however, by the huge increase in infrastructure investment. According to Government statistics quoted by the Association of Professional Staffing Companies, spending on large scale publically-funded building projects has been increasing by 23.5% a year over the last three years. And with the drive to bring forward major infrastructure projects to stimulate economic growth, this trend is almost bound to continue over the next few years.
So while demand for graduates from employers is down by almost 20% and vacancies for professionals overall has reduced by 17% a year since 2009, the number of job opportunities for engineers, especially in the energy sector, has never been greater.
But the bright employment prospects for engineers who have been educated and trained in the UK is by no means confined to this country. British engineers are still highly regarded all over the world and, of course, English is the international language. As a result, the salary and benefits being offered to engineers who are prepared to relocate to far-flung places or work in some of the more challenging environments such as mineral-rich African countries or the Arctic, for example, are sometimes eye watering.
The engineering sector in Britain is doing all that it can to encourage more suitably qualified school students to make the profession their career choice. It has not been shy about highlighting the considerable financial rewards now available to the best engineers and promoting the vast range of career choices open in the numerous branches of the profession. These days, there’s an engineer for everything, according to David Horton, industry blogger and commentator.
Big companies have certainly been playing their part too in the elevation of the status of engineering in the minds of young people. Siemens, for example, was among several organisations that chipped in for the £37 million needed to open the new engineering school at Lincoln University. Furthermore, it is offering 12 scholarships at the university, covering all the lucky students’ tuition fees, plus a £2,000-per-year contribution to their living costs.
Another goal has been to encourage many more women to enter the profession. Today, only 13% of UK engineering graduates are women, a figure that falls to just 9% when it comes to women actually entering the workforce. That compares with 26% of newly qualified engineers being women in Sweden, 20% in Italy and 18% in Spain.
In response to this, Lola Group has launched a competition this year aimed at women under the age of 25 to encourage them to think about a career in engineering. Entrants are being asked to produce an original design for a product that fits the company’s portfolio of technologies in aerospace, defence, communications, renewables, motorsport or automotive.
The UK engineering industry may just be turning a corner: more students are opting for engineering degree courses this year than ever before. The rehabilitation of the profession in the minds and imagination of young people is clearly being helped by the acute skills shortages and consequent prospects for high salaries, rapid advancement and career security. And with the way the whole world is investing in engineering dependent industries, that situation is unlikely to change any time soon.