With a looming skills crisis and an almost complete lack of public awareness of what civil engineers do, is the industry in dire straits? Max Thompson examines what can be done to tackle our dismal public profile.
Ask Joe Public to name an architect and you’ll get a whole stream of suggestions ranging from Le Corbusier to Zaha Hadid. Also somewhere near the top will be TV presenters Kevin McCloud (Grand Designs, 4M viewers) and George Clarke (Amazing Spaces, 2M viewers). But ask them to name an engineer and the chances are you’ll get one Brunel and lots of blank stares.
That’s the power of television. As our letters page over the last two weeks has shown, failing to acknowledge the good PR generated by TV is a hot topic.
Phil Welton is an engineer who has been on the telly. Welton is the Environment Agency’s flood and coast risk manager for the North East. He warns: “If civil engineers are not on the television it is very difficult to get into people’s hearts and minds just how important engineers are. We need to stop being shy about celebrity; it is very important.”
His recent appearance on BBC News was as a talking head in response to the floods, and therein lays the first problem. The devastating aftermath of road and rail crashes, floods, earthquakes and tidal waves; unlike architects, engineers deal in matters of life and death.
“We are always there in the face of adversity,” says Welton. “The media only ever knock on my door when there is an emergency; they want to know how we will react.
“They generally don’t want to hear about what we plan on doing to stop future flooding.”
The ICE is clearly aware of the issue, and back in 2012 things looked rosy when BBC producers of the Evan Davis-fronted Built in Britain series approached the Institution for advice.
“The media only ever knock on my door when there is an emergency; they want to know how we will react”
In one programme on the 2012 Olympics Davis even described the NEC3 contract as the “hero of the Games, [the] hero of the Park”. The two-parter was hailed as “the BBC’s most watched business documentary” that year; not in the league of Grand Designs, but not bad nonetheless.
But in truth things haven’t moved on much from the late 1990s when Arup director Colin Clinton wangled himself a spot on Birmingham’s Heart FM.
At the height of his “fame” an NCE correspondent described Clinton as “brightening the darkened corridors of One Great George Street in a clashing shirt and tie of lime green and bright red” (NCE 21 October 1999).
In other words, Clinton was behaving like an architect.
French architect Jean Noveau only wears black (very occasionally all white, just to emphasise that most of the time he only wears black); architect and Bristol mayor George Ferguson on the other hand only seems to possess red trousers; Stirling Prize winner David Chipperfield is another Man in Black; and Le Corbusier himself had those big black glasses.
Will Alsop has his red wine and fag and Zaha Hadid has a reputation for turning members of staff that displease her into stone. The list goes on and the point is that the so-called “starchitects” are not shrinking violets.
As emeritus professor of engineering at Bristol University David Blockley says: “Engineering has a real image problem.”
Chris Wise, founder of Expedition Engineering and former presenter of the BBC’s Building the Impossible, is the closest the industry has had to a bone fide star.
Brown suits and leather elbow patches
But despite his six times 60 minutes of fame (the series, which examined how structures such as London Bridge and The Coliseum’s roof were built, was last aired in ‘Northern Ireland only’ in May 2006) Wise agrees with Blockley. “Engineers have their brown suits with leather elbow patches,” he says.
“They are far too precious about themselves and overly protective of their image and their stature. They can’t be seen to spoof about.”
Wise says the staid image is down to pressure from “the unseen health and safety person in the company, or the PR person in the company; they don’t want to be seen to be fools.”
But surely it also comes back to Welton’s point that ultimately engineering is a serious business. “It is far harder than being an architect,” acknowledges Wise.
“Architects can be subjective. It’s OK for them to say ‘I like that’, or ‘I think that’, but engineers need scientific justification. The burden of proof in engineering is extremely high and engineers carry that burden like a tonne of bricks on their shoulders.”
The profession needs to find a modern day Clinton (Wise rules himself out, saying he is now too ugly). Someone like BBC One Show’s roving science communicator Marty Jopson would be ideal, says Blockley.
With his mop of unruly blonde hair and trademark braces, Jopson’s One Show slot often strays into engineering topics - a feature showed how tower cranes are erected .
“The word engineer is a pain in the neck. People think it comes from engines, but it doesn’t it comes from ‘ingenuity”
The trouble is that Jopson isn’t an engineer and ‘fun’ is an ingredient that Wise thinks is sorely missing from the profession.
“The language of engineering is shocking. It’s all loads, stress, strains and floods,” he says. “We never talk in positives about how engineers help cross rivers and enable great stuff to happen.”
In a recent episode of The Apprentice business guru Alan Sugar pointed at contestant and “engineer‘“Glenn Ward and growled “you’re fired”, before adding: “I have never yet come across an engineer who can turn his hands to business.”
In the brief drummed-up media storm that followed, vacuum cleaner maestro James Dyson was called in to defend Ward, who turns out to be a design engineer.
It is a serious issue. Whereas an architect is an architect (landscape architects are only for the Chelsea Flower Show aren’t they?), the title engineer covers myriad roles. An engineer you say? Is that structural, mechanical, civil, electrical, bio-chemical, marine, computer…?
“The word engineer is a pain in the neck,” says Wise. “People think it comes from engines, but it doesn’t it comes from ‘ingenuity’.”
Blockley also wonders if “we missed a trick when we didn’t adopt Ingenieur (Ing) as a title before our names when Europe first came on the scene”.
But as well as the image crises and perceived stiffness there is also a very practical reason that TV producers may have shunned engineers. “I have had a lot of conversations with TV people and a main issue is that telly needs a climactic moment,” says Wise. “And you can’t have the guarantee that the cameras will be there when the balloon goes up; there is an issue with tracking the project.”
Computer-generated imagery and voiceovers allow the reconstruction of dramatic events but, as Wise points out, that “sense of jeopardy doesn’t happen very often when the cameras are rolling”.
“It is very hard for producers and directors to get inside the creative process of an engineer,” he adds. “The engineer may have a fantastic idea but turning that into reality could take five years.
TV channels like Discovery do their bit with programmes including “Extreme Engineering”, but Discovery is pumped into only 0.2 % of UK households.
But just as we were giving up hope, the BBC has bitten the bullet and commissioned a prime time series called The Watermen. The six-parter will follow workers in United Utilities as they attempt to keep the nation’s taps flowing.
Commissioning editor, documentaries for BBC1 and BBC2, Maxine Watson, says: “We rarely think about what it takes to bring clean water to every household in the country. This series will hopefully change that as we follow the dedicated cast of characters who take pride in doing the sometimes dirty and filthy jobs essential to bringing us clean,safe water.”
It’s a start.