To the majority of the UK’s 235,000 professional engineers, be they civil, mechanical, electrical, or any other of the many breeds, the Engineering Council simply represents a charge of up to £31 added to their annual institution fees.
Of course this fee does give you the tangible right to put CEng, IEng, EngTech or perhaps ICTTech after your name. But as chief executive Jon Prichard is all too aware, beyond this few really appreciate the value of this registration.
“Essentially it’s about professional recognition and protection of the public,” explains Prichard. “Firstly, it gives you the right to carry your post nominal – a benchmark of excellence – but what we are doing on a daily basis is maintaining the UK’s standing for academic qualifications.”
In the UK, 36 engineering institutions are licensed by the Engineering Council to assess and qualify suitable candidates against a series of technical and professional competences.
The so-called UK-SPEC – standard for professional engineering competence – is the measure for professional engineers and the ICT Technician standard the benchmark for technicians.
The aim is to ensure, firstly, that each of the individual professional institutions are delivering appropriately qualified professionals, and secondly, that they ensure their members continue to behave in the appropriate responsible manner.
And, as Prichard points out, all this emphasis and rigor around professional standards and competence means that, unlike say the architecture profession, engineering remains self-regulating and divorced from statutory controls.
“If the Engineering Council didn’t exist government would have to invent a body to provide that regulation,” he explains. He acknowledges that many engineers would like to see the name “engineer” legally protected.
“Legislation is not necessarily a path that leads to gold. You won’t get an increase in status just because your title is protected.”
“Legislation is not necessarily a path that leads to gold,” he warns. “You won’t get an increase in status just because your title is protected. It comes back to the old adage that you are judged by what you do, not by what you say.
“Protecting your title is not going to achieve an enhancement of your ability to deliver. Being focused on excellence in everything that you do is the pathway to raising your profile and increasing your status.”
Prichard, himself a chartered engineer, is well versed in the views of professional engineers having spent six years at the ICE from 2001, first as membership director then as engineering director.
During this time the whole issue of professional standards and competence was recovering from the often bitterly fought battles of the late 1990s over the introduction of the Engineering Council’s SARTOR 3 standard for registration and its subsequent withdrawal and replacement.
“The relationship with the Engineering Council and the professional bodies in the late 1990s was poor and there was a lack of consultation,” he recalls.
The organisation was subsequently revamped and split in 2002 to form ECUK [Engineering Council UK] to lead on standards and registration plus the Engineering and Technology Board (now renamed Engineering UK), which focuses on the promotion of careers in engineering.
“This [change] led to the introduction of UK Spec in 2003 and that has had a good run at being bedded in and repairing the damage caused by SARTOR 3,” he adds, pointing out that this standard was reviewed in 2009 and confirmed as still fit for purpose.
Yet for all this emphasis on standards and recognising competence, Prichard is also aware that over the last 20 years while consulting has still maintained professional qualification as a stable base of recognition, there has been a move away from promoting professional qualification, particularly, he says, within some government departments and in contracting.
And while this is changing, he says that driving home the value of qualification across engineering organisations is critical not least as the UK deals with the changing economic outlook.
“The recession has certainly meant that there is more interest in registration,” he explains. “Whereas you could survive in a positive economy without recognition because the skills shortage meant people would buy anything, people are now looking to differentiate themselves and registration is one way of doing this.”
“Firms are now recognising the value of diversifying into new markets and we are seeing a big increase of registrants working overseas again”
“Firms are now recognising the value of diversifying into new markets and we are seeing a big increase of registrants working overseas again,” he explains.
“We have registrants in 45 countries. The reality is that we are not just interested in engineering standards in the UK - we are looking to provide registrants with the mobility ticket that allows them to operate on an international level.”
Alongside this promotion of internationally recognised competence, the Engineering Council is also promoting guidance and standards around professional ethics, including the impact of legislation around safety, bribery and corruption.
The recent Statement of Ethical Principles – drawn up with the Royal Academy – is, he says, about protecting the public but is also to help professionals as more and more legislation piles on the pressure.
“If we just continued with our professional ethics that said we design bridges that stand up, fine – but actually the role of engineers is much broader than that so our ethics and standards also need to be much broader.”
This need for engineers to understand and operate in a bigger picture has also led to the development of programmes such as the Education for Engineering (E4E) programme But Prichard insists the twin roles of protecting the public and providing recognition must remain the Council’s core focus.
“In the past we had cradle to the grave employment, your employer looked after your career development. Now career ownership is with the individual”
The increasing drive by institutions towards compulsory continuing professional development (CPD) as a means to verify competence is, he says, likely to generate some discussion over the next few months and years as various planned policies are implemented.
The ICE, for example, begins formal monitoring of members’ CPD record from this year. It will ask a randomly selected sample of 10% to submit their development action plans and then in 2012 they will be required to submit evidence of the CPD to meet these plans.
“In the past when we had cradle to the grave employment your employer looked after your career development – for better or worse. Now career ownership is with the individual,” Prichard points out. “But if you start asking people to submit you have to set up a panel to monitor the records, you are in danger of setting up a bureaucratic nightmare that actually doesn’t add value,” he warns.
“The first step may be to ask chartered engineers to submit a certificate stating that they have fulfilled their CPD obligations.”
Yet as with all its activities, Prichard highlights that with CPD, the Engineering Council must work in partnership with the professional institutions to help deliver the most effective outcomes.
“The more that can be done to enable individual registrants to continue their professional development then the better it will be for the profession and the better it will be for the industry,” he says.