Periodically we hear clamour for more engineers in this country, and a near continuous lament from all sides of industry for a lack of skills; that nefarious catch-all phrase “skills”, and concurrently images of James Dyson and Trevor Baylis are somehow conjured in the mind, a perception of successful modern engineering success forever burned into our psyche by our schools, our government and our media.
And yet however strong this association, this is a hugely narrow and potentially damaging projection both of requirements and capability. How so? Let’s firstly examine requirements before examining engineers’ suitability to match them.
Yes, we need invention and manufacturing expertise, but come on, think bigger!
The world is experiencing a massive transformation. Every resource with the singular exception of human labour is running out, and these resources are over-subscribed and being wasted on a gross scale, whilst the one resource expanding in abundance is gradually being made redundant by technology.
There is political upheaval across the world where the only economic model deemed to work thus far is being exposed as unfair, largely propped up by imaginary fiscal constructs, and unworkable – a fact so increasingly transparent that we have reached a tipping point causing ordinary people to vote for more extreme policies, without much of an idea whether this will lead to real improvement. As a species, our combination of unwillingness to get along, to accommodate, to adjust, to collaborate or acknowledge is modifying our living environment in ways we don’t even understand, and large populations are on the move.
That is just the tip of the iceberg of challenges. We live in an age where our brightest minds have no idea how the universe is actually constructed! The closer they’ve examined it, the more bizarre it has presented, to the point now where our best theory is that there are infinite universes, that the very matter we are made of is just a collection of probable wavelengths of light energy, whatever that is – nobody actually knows. We haven’t worked out what life is, or death. This week they have discovered a new continent. Yes, a continent. Been there all the time, apparently.
The point here is that for all our advances, we don’t actually know anything about anything that really matters. Depending upon your particular viewpoint, for example, if you do or do not have food to eat, a safe place to sleep, a job that isn’t about to be automated and so on, the situation is either catastrophically bad or mesmerically exciting. If you’re thinking that reality is somewhere in between then you really aren’t paying attention; I suggest you think about it whilst rocking back on two legs of your chair to that point where you just catch yourself before falling back completely. That’s where we are at, all of us, right now.
So coming back to requirements – we need everything. Everything. And unlike even just 100 short years ago, we need it all quickly. Yes, we need designers, machine operators, installers, testers, assemblers, repairers, and modellers, but we also need explorers, inventors, discoverers. We also need philosophers, economists, problem solvers, efficiency experts, resource planners, and more than that we need politicians, diplomats and teachers, and above all we need leaders, and we need people who can get things done.
How do engineers fit into this picture? When thinking of our so-called skills shortage, are you still now picturing a young apprentice operating a CNC machine, a draughtsman tap-tapping on a CAD keyboard, a turbine blade, a car engine, a vacuum cleaner? I hope not; because that means people who aren’t engineers are doing all the other, bigger picture stuff, and frankly on the basis of evidence to date, they’re not doing so well.
Engineers are singularly equipped to do all the things this world needs. The rigour, breadth and depth of education are exactly the foundations needed to be able to do all the things that matter. And it is more than OK to stop there, to become the automotive engineer, the aerospace expert, the construction guru, the defence specialist, the software developer, the maintenance technician, the builder of the MRI scanner, or the person who works out how to build a spaceship out of Graphene. Engineers are the only ones qualified to do these things, and they are all needed.
However, there is another world, one of those infinite universes if you like, where you become something else. You apply yourself across the many disciplines your generous breadth of education has afforded, and pursue avenues of leadership where your knowledge enables empathy, understanding and connection with others. You can lead, and you can tip the balance. Don’t leave it to others: engineers should be the ones at the front.