A Step in Many Directions ; Disability and Gait Analysis? the Range of Options Open to Engineers Is a Lot Wider Than You Might Think, Says Mary Braid
Braid, Mary, The Independent (London, England)
Zoe Robertson, 27, uses her technological skill to help people walk. In the gait analysis laboratory at Derby Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Robertson studies the walking pattern of adults and children - many of whom have cerebral palsy - and then works out how to correct their movement or minimise the damage their gait is doing to other parts of the body, such as the spine.
It is fascinating work, but not what she envisaged when she decided at high school that she wanted to become an engineer. Nor did she contemplate the marrying of engineering, disability and medicine during the gap year she spent in a Tipton factory that made steel toecaps for safety shoes. But back then she had no idea of the breadth of work undertaken by the modern engineer.
"I didn't know until I was looking for a project subject for my final year at university that there was such a thing as rehabilitation engineering that focused on helping people with disabilities," she says. "But I did my final project in that area and then I got so interested that I decided to look for work like that on graduation. It's the contact with people and applying engineering to help them that appeals so much to me.
"I also like the way I have to work with doctors and physiotherapists to help patients. I also go to patients' homes and try to work out ways for them to have more control over their environment. I design single systems that allow them to control intercoms, lights and TVs. It helps people remain in their own homes and gives them more independence."
John Bristow, careers and education manager with SEMTA (Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies) explains that the engineering industry has undergone a revolution in the past few decades. The decline of the old industries such as steel making, car manufacturing and ship building has seen the overall numbers employed by the UK engineering sector fall from 3 million to around 1.8 million.
At the same time, automation and cheaper overseas labour has caused the number of low-level, unskilled jobs to dramatically fall in the UK. The old employment pyramid with a few highly skilled, university-educated engineers at the top, more craft and technician engineers in the middle and a mass of unskilled operatives at the bottom has gone. The sides of the pyramid have straightened and the areas of business open to engineers have broadened. One of the biggest problems facing the sector now is attracting clever pupils - achieving A-C at GCSEs - into the industry through apprenticeship schemes.
"We are looking for more high-calibre graduates and apprentices," says Bristow. "There are fewer and fewer openings for the unskilled in engineering. The days of strict demarcation, enforced by unions, are also gone. Back then the electrical engineer would deal with the electrics of a machine but leave the mechanics to the mechanical engineer. Now it's a matter of multi-skilling."
One of the problems with selling the new engineering to school leavers, undergraduates and their parents is that engineering's old image - dirty hands and grimy factories - still dominates despite the modern additions of "clean" microchip labs and gait analysis centres.
Even Robertson, who challenges another old engineering stereotype as a female engineer, assumed that she would work in a traditional factory setting when she left university. Engineering's wider possibilities only gradually unfolded before her eyes. "It's a long, long way from what I thought I would do, but there are actually lots of opportunities in medical engineering. My aim now is to become a state-registered clinical scientist as well as a chartered engineer."
As well as breadth, modern engineering is trying to offer opportunities for more upward mobility to employees. …