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Celebrating our achievements

Why in the UK is there such little recognition of civil engineers? By Miranda Housden.

Civil engineers are revered on the continent and in many other places around the world.

They are celebrated professionals who save lives, create solutions on global issues such as climate change and are essential to the delivery of their country’s infrastructure. Unfortunately, engineers are not so highly regarded in the UK. Despite continued efforts to change perceptions, a lot of the public still think engineers fix cars. It’s the architects who are more associated with the public realm, buildings and even designing bridges. The Mayor of London has even chosen an architect to be his transport advisor.

Behind the scenes

At a recent conference on London’s transport - where there was a notable absence of civil engineers on the panel - it occurred to me that the nature of civil engineers’ roles in focusing on the detail and providing the technical solutions, means they are often behind the scenes.

Could we do more as a profession to deliver the solutions as we already do, while at the same time celebrate and promote the role we play in shaping society?

We could learn a lot from the architects to make this change - architects readily celebrate their achievements through programmes such as Grand Designs which give architects the limelight and kudos to turn them into household names.

Reaching the public through school projects also proves fruitful, as demonstrated by ICE London’s participation in the Lord Mayor’s Show, which featured a procession of children carrying models they had made of London’s infrastructure. Delighted children and teachers glowed as the crowd shouted ‘it’s the engineers’. Over 300,000 people lined the route of the show, and BBC coverage reached over 2M.

A long way to go

But we have a long way to go in raising the profile of engineering as a career, when teachers seldom know what engineers really do or the recommended qualifications and attributes required.

We must continue to increase awareness to inspire the next generation of engineers. ICE President Peter Hansford’s ‘Create Sport Challenge’ - a competition where 12 to 13 year olds across the UK will plan, design and construct a model for a new sports venue - has the potential to make a major impact, but this requires involvement from volunteers to act as ICE Ambassadors. There’s never been more demand for help, and schools are raring to go, but in this economic climate, engineers are often unable to offer time.

With training budgets slashed, the industry must continue to invest in its engineers and allow them to share their knowledge and help sustain the profession. As part of this, ICE urges every company to encourage their engineers to become ICE Ambassadors where they can gain valuable CPD and educate tomorrow’s engineers and the public. We will know we have succeeded when we have cohorts of informed, enthusiastic youngsters emerging from education with a clear desire to take up roles in a highly respected and visible civil engineering profession.

  • Miranda Housden is regional director of ICE London

Readers' comments (2)

  • Richard R

    I couldn't agree with this more. The main problem in my opinion, is that, to my knowledge, engineering is the only profession where the term 'Engineer' is not protected. In short, anyone can seemingly use the term 'Engineer' and the loosness of its use expands through gas fitters, motor mechanics and photocopier repairers. I often have this argument with non-technical people in my organisation, eventually quoting the following:

    You don't hear of policemen calling themselves lawyers, check-out assistants calling themselves accountants, or builders calling themselves architects. Why? Because they can't, and because the public has a clear view of what these professions are and what work they do. Hence they are revered.

    It will take probably a generation to alter this perception.

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  • The follwing is taken from the engineering council's frequently asked questions on professional titles,

    Why are professional engineers not recognised by statute, like doctors or lawyers?

    Statutory recognition of professions in the UK requires the particular functions being controlled by statute to be defined. It has not proved possible to isolate the functions that engineers undertake, except in narrow sectors (dam designers, certificated marine engineers, mining engineers). Unsurprisingly, coverage of other professions is rarely comprehensive. For instance, medical procedures may in fact be undertaken by anyone who obtains the consent of their patient. Restrictions on legal practice are confined to the courtroom - legal advice is freely available from unregistered lawyers.

    Why are engineers overseas able to protect their title?

    In most of Europe professional engineers hold a title 'ingenier', or similar. The word is not defined in the same way as 'engineer' and may therefore be protected, legally. Commonwealth and ex-commonwealth countries like Australia and the USA suffer the same problems as the UK.

    Why isn't the title 'engineer' protected in the UK?

    The word 'engineer' has been in common use in the English language for many centuries, and is widely understood by the public to describe anyone whose work relates to engineering - particularly manufacture or maintenance. There is no likelihood that the engineering profession could obtain rights to prevent existing users using the term to describe themselves.

    What protection of title does a professional engineer have in the UK?

    The registered titles 'Chartered Engineer', 'Incorporated Engineer', 'Engineering Technician' and 'Information and Communications Technology Technician' and their related designatory letters, are protected by civil law. The Engineering Council and the Institutions pursue abusers of these titles through the courts.

    Can anyone practise engineering in the UK, whatever their qualifications or registration status?

    The legal system in the British Isles and many non-Europen countries is permissive - the common law having developed in such a way as to maximise individual rights. Health and Safety regulations tend to apply to employers and (corporate) operators. Attempts to restrict access to professional practice are these days seen as anti-consumer, or anti-competitive.


    Maybe the next stage of this argument is to encourage the ICE Council to ask the Engineering Council to look at this again, get a second legal opinion? It is something that the majority of engineers in the UK want, perhaps they gave up at the first hurdle. Maybe it is too late to change, the ever widening use of the word engineer should have been nipped in the bud when it first occured.

    How about having the protected title in the UK of "ingenier" anyone??? At the very least, once they've heard it, people would remember what it relates to.

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