Too Little Respect

By Grose, Thomas K. | ASEE Prism, January 2008 | Go to article overview
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Too Little Respect

Grose, Thomas K., ASEE Prism

British engineers, once the pride of an empire, are typecast by the public and rarely reach the executive suite. Educators explore curriculum changes to give the profession a boost.

DAN MUTADICH'S 15-year career has been a sterling one. The British engineer has worked on products ranging from cellphones to flat-screen TVs, and has been involved with such A-list companies as Nokia and Phillips.

Nevertheless, Mutadich, 36, paints a bleak picture of an engineer's lot in British industry, saying that engineers are too often considered "Mr. Fix-its," relegated to career paths that rarely lead to upper management levels.

In the 18th century, Britain's engineers stood at the forefront of the industrial revolution, leading the way with agricultural innovations and path-breaking inventions such as the steam engine and mechanized spinning wheel. Today, however, the role of British engineers has become more circumscribed, and the public perception of them has also suffered. Britain's Engineering and Technology Board (ETB) recently noted that "the prevalent view of scientists and engineers by young children is bespectacled, mad-looking, white-coated males."

As a result, Mutadich says, "young British engineers are frustrated, because they find it difficult to break into general management. And who loses? Both engineers and industry." Too many big projects are led by teams that don't understand the technologies involved, while engineers are sidelined. The result can be a big headache: Mutadich points to two major civil engineering projects-the high-speed, London-to-coast overland rail link for the Eurostar trains, and the construction of London's new Wembley Stadium. Both were dogged by cost overruns and missed deadlines for this very reason.

One important solution may be to provide U.K. engineering students a deeper understanding of business. That's the recommendation of the Sainsbury Management Fellows' (SMF) Society, of which Mutadich is president. Comprising alumni of a fellowship program created 20 years ago to help British engineers acquire MBAs from top universities, the SMF is now urging U.K.'s engineering schools to incorporate more management and business courses in their curricula. Such a move would not only improve the career prospects of engineering grads, SMF argues. It would also help make the field more attractive in a country where the number of engineering graduates is failing to meet a growing demand.

Certainly something needs to be done. Says Jeff Kramer, dean of the engineering faculty at Britain's top technical university, Imperial College: "The difficulty of attracting students into engineering is a universal problem but is especially acute in this country." The percentage of total college graduates receiving degrees in engineering and science each year is now 12 percent-around 45,000 students-and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) warns that to fill the expected new tech jobs that number needs to more than double to 25 percent by 2014. But in the last decade, the number of engineering degrees awarded has grown by only 1 to 2 percent a year. By contrast, during the same time period, the percentage of British students receiving degrees doubled, from 20 to 40 percent. "We're not getting our fair share," says Julian Gardner, dean of engineering at the University of Warwick.

Another problem is that fewer than half of engineering graduates stick with the discipline after leaving school. Indeed, 28 percent head for prestigious, well-paying jobs in the City, London's financial district. There, former engineers' numerate and analytical skills are much in demand for creating math-based, complicated investment instruments; ironically, it seems to matter little how much basic business knowledge or managerial potential they have. At the University of Bristol, there are years when half the engineering graduates are City-bound. Only 24 percent opt for jobs in manufacturing.

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