Engineering Professors’ Council Annual Congress 2014

The Engineering Professors' Council Annual Congress took place at the University of Glasgow on 8th - 9th April 2014 with the theme: Engaging in Engineering.

Glasgow uni

The Distinguished Guest Lecture “Engineering for Growth” was delivered by Sir John Parker GBE FREng, who also received the President’s Prize* for services to engineering education, and this was followed by the Congress Dinner in the Senate Room in George Gilbert Scott’s magnificent university building. Jamie Gallagher, the University of Glasgow’s Science Outreach Officer treated us to a lively and inspiring after-dinner speech.

Congress also incorporated the final of our public engagement grant award competition, Engaging in Engineering. The four short-listed candidates were invited to pitch their proposals to delegates, who then voted for up to two winners. We were delighted to be able to announce that the proposals from the Universities of Sheffield and the West of England were successful, with delegates voting to fund their proposals.

We were also joined by the winner and two runners-up from our 20th Anniversary student essay prize competition.  Our winner, Laura Pickard of the University of Bristol, did a great job of responding to Professor John Perkins’ keynote speech and the runners-up, Julia Attwood (University of Cambridge) and Eleanor Earl, Cardiff University, joined her, and Professor Perkins, in responding to questions from delegates.

* The Engineering Professor’s Council awards its President’s Prize biennially to an individual, who, in the opinion of the Committee, has provided sustained and excellent services to engineering education over the course of a distinguished career.

Please see the detailed schedule for this event, below.

Tuesday 8h April

Session 1

Session 2

Session 3

Wednesday 9h April

Session 4

Session 5

Session 6

Robin joined CRAC in 2004 as Commercial & Business Development Director, and has led several of its business functions prior to his current role as Director of Research & Intelligence. He has particular research interests in work experience and employability, STEM careers and evaluation, as well as undertaking research for Vitae, and also in developing career learning outside formal education settings. He has authored numerous evaluation and research studies across these fields, for Government departments, its agencies and other education and employer organisations.

In addition to his research portfolio, Robin holds or has recently held advisory positions on several national career-related programmes, including Futuretrack, the ‘National STEM Careers and Choices’ programme and projects at the Institute of Education. He is also a member of the national Careers Innovation Group.

Prior to joining CRAC, after enjoying the independence and travel of a PhD in geology, Robin worked in scientific publishing. In a career of 15 years he worked for a number of companies in editorial and publishing roles, and was Director of Publishing at the IEE (Institution of Electrical Engineers, now the IET), a large international technical publisher.

Dr. David Docherty is on the board of the Digital Catapult – the leading agency for the early adoption of digital technologies – and Pearson College, which aims to become one of the UK’s leading universities for in-depth industry engagement.He is also a Trustee of Education and Employers, a charity which aims to inspire the employment opportunities of students in state schools. He has held senior executive roles in the BBC and Telewest, as well as being CEO of mid-sized media companies and chair of start-ups. He was the inaugural CEO of the National Centre for Universities and Business. He is a published fiction writer and historian, as well as a columnist for broadsheets and specialist journals. He is an honorary professor at UCL, a fellow of the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, and holds four honorary degrees.

Professor Perkins is the Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills; he took up this appointment in January 2012.  Prior to this he was Provost at the MASDAR Institute of Science and Technology, Abu Dhabi (2009-10),  leading the development of this new institution.

Professor Perkins’ distinguished academic career includes service as Vice President and Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences, The University of Manchester (2004-9); Principal, Faculty of Engineering, Imperial College London  (2001-4) and ICI Australia Professor of Process Systems Engineering, University of Sydney (1985-88), as well as a period at the beginning of his academic career at the University of Cambridge (1973-7).   He has served as President of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (2000-1) and as Vice President of the Royal Academy of Engineering (2007-10).  Professor Perkins is currently an Honorary Professor at Manchester University, Visiting Professor at Imperial College London and a member of the EPSRC Council.

He published his Review of Engineering Skills in November 2013 and will be our keynote speaker at Congress 2014.

President of The Royal Academy of Engineering 2011 - present

Sir John Parker has chaired five FTSE100 companies, including National Grid, from which he stepped down in December 2011, and is currently Chairman of the mining conglomerate Anglo American. He is Vice Chairman of DP World (Dubai) and a Non-Executive Director of Carnival Corporation and EADS (AIRBUS).

Sir John is a passionate advocate of harnessing the benefits of economic growth to improve quality of life, address society’s challenges, strengthen social cohesion and, critically, to provide the education and training that give young people real opportunity.

Born into a farming family in Northern Ireland. he studied Naval Architecture and Mechanical Engineering at the College of Technology and Queens University, Belfast and joined the ship design team at Harland & Wolff where he progressed into senior management positions.

He was appointed Managing Director of shipbuilders Austin & Pickersgill in Sunderland in 1974 and, following the nationalisation of the shipbuilding industry, he joined the Board of the British Shipbuilders Corporation, later becoming Deputy Chief Executive. He returned to Harland & Wolff in the early 1980s as Chairman and Chief Executive to lead a turnaround in the yard’s fortunes and transfer it into the private Sector.

Sir John joined Babcock International plc as CEO in 1993 – later becoming Chairman as well – and again transformed the company. In 1997, he became a Non-executive Director of British Gas which led to his becoming Chairman of the Lattice Group on its demerger from BG Group in 2000. Lattice merged with National Grid in 2002 and Sir John became Chairman of the combined company, National Grid Transco.

He has also held a host of non-executive directorships, including the Industrial Development Board of Northern Ireland, British Coal Corporation, GKN, BG and Brambles Industries.

Elected to The Royal Academy of Engineering as one of its youngest Fellows in 1983, Sir John is also an Elder Brother of Trinity House (2010), a Visiting Fellow of University of Oxford, a member of the General Committee of Lloyds Register of Shipping, Vice President of The Royal Navy and Marines Charity and a governor of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. He is a recipient of honorary doctorates from a number of universities in the UK and Ireland. He has been President of the Royal Institution of Naval Architects, Prime Warden of the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights, an Honorary Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Fuellers and the Tallow Chandlers Livery Company and President of the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers.

He led National Grid’s Young Offenders into Work programme. He has served government on the Prime Minister’s Business Council for Britain, the Defence Academy Advisory Board, the Asia Task Force and was Deputy Chairman of the White Ensign Association.

He will deliver the Distinguished Lecture at Congress 2014.

Peter Goodhew was elected Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2002 where he Chairs the Visiting Professors' Scheme.  His research has centred on transmission electron microscopy and he chaired the UK SuperSTEM team, building the world's best analytical electron microscopes at Daresbury Laboratory.  He has served as Head of the Department of Engineering at the University of Liverpool as well as Dean of Engineering and Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University.

Peter will be chairing the final of the Engaging in Engineering grant award scheme at Congress 2014.

Laura Pickard is a first year EngD candidate at the University of Bristol and National Composites Centre and captured first prize in our 2014 student essay competition.

Her background is in physics, most recently an MPhil in gravitational wave astrophysics, which, while a very interesting area, led her to decide to pursue a more practical career.  Her EngD research will be centred around monitoring- and hopefully improving- the cure process of composite materials as well as setting up a new research capability at the NCC.  Laura has worked in fluid dynamics, materials science and electromagnetism at Dstl and thanks them for sponsoring her MSci in physics and astronomy.

Laura has worked with student societies on a national and international level, through the Institute of Physics and International Association of Physics Students, including a term as President of the student branch of IoP and as Vice President of IAPS.  These positions gave her a chance to travel to many interesting places, run scientific visits and conferences, work with people from a variety of cultures- including mediating some heated debates- and represent physics students at industrial, academic and political meetings.

Public outreach is important to Laura, who has lectured and led experiments at schools, adult education centres and events for the general public, using hands on demonstrations as much as possible. Laura hopes to pursue a career which will make good use of her scientific background and management skills and sees the EngD as a step in the right direction.  She has retired from Taekwondo instruction in favour of Argentine Tango and is a solo glider pilot. She enjoys baking and has been known to make ice cream with liquid nitrogen.

Julia Attwood is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge and received one of the two runner-up prizes in our 2014 student essay competition. Born in Canada, Julia has also spent time in the Netherlands, Scotland and England. Though initially determined to pursue a career in law, she was persuaded to study engineering by two very tenacious mechanical engineers; her parents.

Julia graduated in 2011 with a BA MEng (Hons) in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Cambridge. During her undergraduate degree, she took up several internships at Granta Design, writing and recording tutorials for their materials education software, CES Edupack. She also worked with Professor Mike Ashby to develop the first edition of the Energy and Low Carbon Power database.

Julia then began work on a PhD, also at the University of Cambridge, researching the ballistic resistance of high molecular weight polymer composites. She also supervises first and second year undergraduates, providing supplementary teaching of the materials courses, as well as offering one on one writing tuition through her college. In her spare time, Julia is a keen rower, and has held various positions on college committees, including Captain of the First and Third Trinity Boat Club, and Secretary of the BA Society (Trinity graduate student society).

Eleanor Earl is an MEng candidate at Cardiff University and was awarded one of the two runner-up prizes in our 2014 student essay competition.

Originally from Sussex, Eleanor is in her fourth and final year studying Civil and Environmental Engineering at Cardiff University. This autumn she shall start working for Arup as a Graduate Civil Engineer within the Infrastructure Team.  Since starting university, she has been an active member of Engineers Without Borders UK (EWB-UK).

Over the last four years, Eleanor has been involved with her local Student Branch and Professional Network in Cardiff, as well as working with the National Executive of the charity. She regularly takes part in outreach activities both as part of EWB-UK and as a STEM Ambassador, getting young people involved in engineering.  In her spare time, Eleanor enjoys travelling. Most recently she visited Jamaica on an IAESTE placement, to work for a small engineering consultancy in the lively capital Kingston. She also enjoys sports and being outdoors, playing squash regularly at university and visiting the hills of South Wales and the South Downs whenever possible.

Mike is a Professorial Teaching Fellow at TEDI-London and has a strong track record in project-based learning and has published widely in innovations in engineering education. His technical subject area is in metallurgy and materials science, having worked in the steel industry before entering academia. In a previous role he was the Assistant Dean for Academic Development for the faculty of Arts, Computing, Engineering & Sciences at Sheffield Hallam University of which he is now an Emeritus Professor.

Mike has been on Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) teams for Subject Review, Higher Education Review, Quality Review Visits and Quality and Standards Review for a wide range of Universities, further education colleges and alternative providers. He is a Governor at Northern College for Adult Education, Barnsley, and chairs its Curiculum and Quality Committee.

Mike is a Fellow of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining and is also an active member and on the Board of the UK Engineering Professors’ Council, being also a member of its Recruitment and Admissions sub-committee. Mike worked nationally as an Associate Director of the Materials Subject Centre from 2003 to 2012 at the University of Liverpool. Mike is also a National Teaching Fellow and a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

Manchester Metropolitan University

University of the West of England

University of Birmingham


Association of Graduate Recruiters

University of Glasgow

University of Glasgow

The Engineer

University of Strathclyde




Kingston University

Kingston University


University of Strathclyde

University of Sheffield

Imperial College

Durham University

University of Glasgow
To mark its 20th year (in its current incarnation), the Engineering Professors’ Council decided to inaugurate a new student award.

We were delighted to be supported by the  Incorporation of Hammermen of Glasgow in this endeavour and by the response we received.

Our first three winners were announced at Congress 2014 and you can read their essays (along with those which the judges wished to acknowledge as highly commended) here.  The topic of the 2014 competition arose as a result of the Government’s focus on how engineering with contribute to the UK’s Industrial Strategy and future economic well-being.

We invited students, both undergraduate and postgraduate, the opportunity to submit an essay on the following topic:

How does engineering contribute to the UK economy and how can that contribution be increased? Is there a role for UK engineering in higher education in making this happen?

The overall winner, Laura Pickard, an EngD candidate from the University of Bristol, received £1,000 and delivered an excellent presentation at Congress based on her work in response to Professor John Perkins’ keynote speech on Engineering Skills in the UK.   The two runners-up, Julia Attwood, a PhD candidate from the University of Cambridge and Eleanor Earl, an MEng candidate from Cardiff University each received £500 and joined Laura and Professor Perkins in a panel session during which they fielded questions from Congress delegates.

Please expand the sections below to view the essays from our finalists:

Laura Pickard

Laura Pickard is a first year EngD candidate at the University of Bristol and National Composites Centre and captured first prize in our 2014 student essay competition.

Laura headed her essay “Engineering the Future” but it could just as easily have been entitled “Real ponies jump.  Toy ponies need a hairband catapult...”  Don’t forget to read the footnotes

An edited version also appeared in the Engineer in April 2014.


Engineering the Future

Engineering is vital to the UK economy, especially if growth is to be achieved.  But as it stands, we do not have enough young people going into the field. It is not enough to increase the number of university places available, unless we also have bright young minds eager to fill them.  We must ensure that teenagers, especially girls who are so under-represented at present, consider engineering an attractive and worthwhile career.  How does engineering contribute to the UK economy and how can that contribution be increased? Is there a role for UK engineering in higher education in making this happen? To answer these questions, we must first define “engineering”.  This is a surprisingly difficult task, and in itself gives insight into the image problem the area faces.


What is engineering?

The Royal Academy of Engineering provides, in its “Jobs and Growth” report, a collection of various descriptions of engineering[1].  It talks of “developing and supporting products, processes and services for society”[2] or “something of significant technical content for a specified purpose”[3] and, my favourite, “No profession unleashes the spirit of innovation like engineering”[4]. To characterise the contribution of engineering to the economy, we must know to what we are referring.  The “Jobs and Growth” report counts people who self-declare as engineers and technicians and by occupations, over the whole range of economic sectors, categorised as Science, Engineering and Technology (SET).[5]  But more than that, there is in general confusion about what the term “engineer” means. My personal vision of engineering is using  science and knowledge of the world around us to solve problems, develop new technology, or otherwise make ourselves useful to humanity.  Or failing that, at least having  fun trying!  But this was not always my view.  Aged about six, I told my father of my desire to be an inventor.  He suggested I should aim to become an engineer.  Deeply offended, I stalked back to my room and returned to playing with my toy ponies.[6]   Why would I want to fix cars?  Boring. Like so many other children, I had no idea what an engineering career might involve.  At six, this is perhaps forgivable:  my backup choice of career was cleaning windows[7]!  But public perception of engineering remains confused, with most people associating engineering primarily with manual, mechanical work[8].


Contribution to the economy

The “Jobs and Growth” report finds that the “2.3 million skilled people in the engineering-related skills base”  represent 8% of the workforce and 23% of those are working in the “productive economy”.  Overall for 2009 the Gross Value Added (GVA) to the economy from engineering related sectors was £370 billion, 28% of the total economy’s GVA of £1.3 trillion. This shows the disproportionately high contribution that engineering-related sectors make to the UK economy.  Moreover, SET workers are found in every sector of the economy.  Both parties in the Coalition Government have spoken about the need for growth, in particular of the manufacturing sector .  Manufacturing is an area where engineering is at the core of the business.  This, along with the possibility of improvement in the construction industry , shows that engineering will be of increasing importance in the future. “Jobs and Growth” finds, for 2012 to 2020, that the UK will need an extra 830,000 SET professionals and 450,000 SET technicians, suggesting that up to 50% more science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates are needed. It is worth remembering that engineering is, above all, about innovation.  New ideas can lead to new products or even entire new sectors.  This potential is impossible to quantify, but worth bearing in mind.  An engineering degree is costly, but the benefits to the individual, their employer, the UK and to society as a whole can be immense.


Higher education

It is clear from the data above that the UK needs engineers to sustain and grow the economy.  Many companies can recruit from abroad, but we should not squander our local talent.  For our economy to grow, we must provide jobs, and, equally importantly, people ready to do them. 26% of engineering graduates went on to non-STEM careers in 2011/12, breaking down to 35.8% of female graduates and 24.3% of male graduates.   This is not intrinsically bad, although the gender difference is notable.  Engineering is of use in many areas outside the traditional SEM industries and varied career prospects help to recruit students in the first place.  However, while this demonstrates the value of engineering,  industry needs more graduate engineers. The percentage of UK engineers who are female is woefully small:  8.7% in 2007, the worst in the EU.   Women are half of the potential workforce, it’s ridiculous not to make the most of our talents. Industry input into course design is valuable, particularly those which have been developed collaboratively.   Engineers, particularly those good at public speaking, can and should talk to students about possible careers. Employers can get students into industry, through sandwich years, summer work or even pre-university.  My Year in Industry was interesting, enjoyable and taught me far more about practical research in the real world than school or academia could – as well as providing summer work and a sponsorship.    I thoroughly recommend the experience. The Perkins Report applauds the Centres for Doctoral training, and I feel the EngD scheme is also worthy of note here.  Being more industry focused than a traditional PhD, with a sponsoring company as well as a university place, an EngD provides a student with the skills and experience to move from academia to, I hope, a good job in a growing field. Industry can and should recruit from physics graduates- like myself- and other related subjects, and short courses to assist in the transition would be most useful (I am making good use of the taught component of the EngD). The main discovery of my Astrophysics MPhil was that, despite the fascination the stars hold for me, I missed practical work- and that it is definitely possible to have too much FORTRAN . Many engineers do not go through higher education.  The vocational career path teaches many useful skills.  For jobs where degree level training is needed, employers could sponsor talented, non-graduate employees for study.  Mature students, with the benefit of real world experience, gain a great deal from study for themselves and are a source of advice and inspiration for younger students. Ensuring that funding is available for quality teaching is vital, and I hope that the various political parties can all see this as a worthwhile investment in the future of our country.  The signs are positive.  As well as the focus on the manufacturing economy, the Liberal Democrat science policy  supports increased research and development (R&D) funding and the “Ingenious Britain” report by James Dyson  for the Conservative Party suggests more focus (and pay) for science teaching and greater involvement of industry in higher education.  The Green Party supports greater investment in developing renewable energy technologies.   Other parties do not yet have policies available.


School results

Pickard fig 1

Our university courses need to be filled with enthusiastic, talented young people who are keen to learn, and to become engineers. The typical offer grades for engineering degrees listed on the UCAS website have a mean of 314.5 points and median of 320 points .  The UCAS points required by universities are shown in Figure 1.  Most require mathematics at A level, many also require physics. In 2013, 25,317 (30.6%A*/A) boys and 6,599 girls (36% A*/A) took A level physics.  48, 947 (44.1% A*/A) boys and 31,621(42.9%A*/A) took A level maths.   The dearth of girls taking physics is notable.  Over all subjects, 17.6% of students achieve at least grades AAB.  Of those who achieve A*-C in GCSE physics, only 19% go on to take the A level.  Only 38% of those who achieve an A* at GCSE physics go on to A level.     Clearly we need to look at making physics more interesting and more relevant, particularly to girls.


Engineers solve problems

Engineering is vital to our economy, yet we do not produce enough engineers.  Better links with industry throughout the higher education process is likely to help  as is recruiting from other related subjects.  There needs to be funding for a large number of students on quality courses, with specialist modules, good careers advice  and industrial experience to get them ready to innovate their way to a better economy. But most importantly, there needs to be eager young people to fill those university places.  We have the talent, we just need to provide a reason to study engineering.  Engineering graduates are expected to earn high salaries   but students require more than pay to interest them in a career. It is a shocking statistic that in 2012, 49% of state funded, co-educational schools had no girls taking  A level physics at all.     The Institute of Physics recommend that schools monitor gender imbalance in all subjects and consider avoidance of stereotyping an important factor.  This is true not only in schools but in the home, as evidenced in the Perkins Review, showing parents are more likely to consider engineering a good career for their sons than for their daughters.   Schools should talk to parents about engineering, to dispel the common misconceptions of axle grease and boiler servicing. Tackling the gender imbalance must be part of our solution.   We must cast off the image problem by talking about engineering in a context that appeals to teenage girls. Alas, I have been unable to find any data on this subject[29], but hazy personal recollections and discussions with a number of teachers come up with the same theme – the environment.  Many girls feel strongly about topics like conservation, climate change and animal welfare.  Fortunately, this fits well with the often-stated aim to use more renewable energy and reduce our carbon footprint.  Renewable energy, electric vehicles, sustainable product design, energy efficient buildings and infrastructure and all aspects of environmentally focused technology are of increasing importance- and inspiring to the new generation. Teaching science through real world examples is more interesting than simply the dry facts.  I recall studying topics as varied as sport, archaeology, space and sweets during physics A level.  So, at GCSE level and earlier, I urge teachers to talk in terms of environmentally friendly science.  Tell students that to make a real difference, they need to develop new technologies.  There’s no shortage of problems to solve. Want to save the world?  Engineer the solution.



[1] ‘Jobs and Growth’, Royal Academy of Engineering 2012 (‘Jobs and Growth’ report)

[2] QAA Subject Benchmark Statement for Engineering 2010

[3] Malpas, Sir Robert, The Universe of Engineering: A UK definition, London, Royal Academy of Engineering 2000

[4] United States of America National Academy of Engineering, Changing the Conversation: messages for improving public understanding of engineering.  Washington D.C., The National Academies Press, 2008.

[5] Greenwood, Harrison and Vignoles, The labour market value of STEM qualifications and occupations, Institute of Education/Royal Academy of Engineering, 2011

[6] Real ponies jump.  Toy ponies need a hairband catapult.  How else will they board their spaceship?

[7] The possibilities presented by a bucket of water and a big ladder seemed wonderfully enticing, especially with a little brother ‘helping’ at ground level.


[9] First quarter 2011 Labour Force Survey, ‘Jobs and Growth’ report

[10] 2009 Labour Force Survey and data from ONS, ‘Jobs and Growth’ report

[11] Conservatives-

Liberal democrats:

[12] UKCES Working Futures 2010-20, UKCES 2011

[13] Engineering UK Report 2014, Kumar, Randerson and Kiwana.

[14] UKRC analysis of the European Labour Force Survey, 2007

[15] Professor John Perkins’ review of Engineering Skills, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills,  2013 (Perkins Review)

[16] Thankyou Dstl.

[17] When I started dreaming in code, I knew I needed to get my hands dirty again.

[18] Science Policy, Liberal Democrats 2012

[19] Ingenious Britain, James Dyson for the Conservative Party, 2010.


[21] The Labour Party website, and the ‘yourbritain’ site, came up with nothing when searched for ‘engineering’, ‘education’ and ‘manufacturing economy’- the same search terms used on the other sites.  Searching the UKIP site for ‘engineering’ returned an article suggesting the EU might ban Danish pastries. ( It seems likely that these political parties have not yet decided on their policies for the next election, or perhaps they need to improve their websites.

[22] Points are explained in the UCAS tariff tables

[23] 2013 A level results

[24] Subject Progression from GCSE to AS level and continuation to A level, Department for Education

[25] HESA Longitudinal Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education Survey

[26] Engineering UK 2014 report

[27] Closing Doors, Institute of Physics, December 2013

[28] Polling for Tomorrow’s Engineers week.

[29] Neither professional engineering organisations nor environmental charities and lobby groups were able to provide me with a gender/age breakdown of their membership.

Julia Attwood

Julia Attwood is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge and received one of the two runner-up prizes in our 2014 student essay competition.

With both parents engineers, she was encouraged to ask “why”?  Or perhaps in the context of this competition – “why not”? Read Julia’s essay, in full, below.


“Why do you think that boat floats? Why does the hull have that shape? What’s the best way to halt a crack in a bulkhead?”

These are the questions I was asked as a girl when my father would drive us down to the shipyard on our way home. I learned the meaning of pitch, yaw and roll by the movements of my father’s hand, and the motion of my uncle’s lobster fishing boat under my feet. Growing up in Atlantic Canada, I saw the necessity of engineering in our lives and society; how it helped the fishermen to come home safe, allowed huge cargo ships to glide majestically through the harbour, and harvest the oil and gas that brought my small city prosperity. I was lucky enough to grow up among problem solvers, people who could show me real, tangible results of their day at work, whose eyes lit up at the sight of a home improvement challenge. Perhaps even more significantly, I had a role model in my mother, who was also an engineer and still proudly wore her iron ring. If you had asked me what an engineer was when I was 10 years old, I would have said ‘my parents’.

Very few children will grow up in this type of environment, and no doubt it made my journey to the profession easier and more obvious. However, there are many ways that engineering can be brought to the attention of young people and made a bigger part of their lives. I don’t believe that any one of higher education institutions, industry or the Government can accomplish this independently of the others. In this essay I will present my own theories about how this can be accomplished, based on the education systems and cultures I experienced in both Canada and the UK. Engineering is by no means a dying profession, but if it is to become the aspiration of the next generation, it needs some rejuvenation.

The world economy suffered a heavy blow in 2008 when the banking crisis threw some of the most powerful countries in the world into disarray. The economies that have recovered most effectively are those that are based on commodities and industries. The UK economy is currently worth $2.44 trillion, with two main contributing sectors: Services (78%) and Industry (21%) [1]. Possibly a more important metric is the UK economy’s trade deficit. The country imports goods valued around $650 billion, while exports were valued at around $480 billion [1]. This represents the second largest trade deficit in the world, after the USA. In order to protect Great Britain’s economy from future financial storms, a strong engineering and manufacturing sector must be developed. The Government has recognized this and is eager to promote and support burgeoning industries. A solid base of engineering skills is essential to this achievement.

The first step in bringing engineering to the forefront is to ensure it has a place among the most respected professions. In Canada, engineering has always been one of the most trusted professions. Vocational degrees are highly prized, with the highest achieving students in the physical sciences aiming to be engineers. Upon moving to Britain, I saw a startling difference. The fact that ‘engineer’ is not a protected term in this country, as it is in Canada, France, Germany and the US, causes it to mistakenly lack the prestige of other professional occupations. There seemed to be little respect for my profession, we were considered the least of the best. I think there is nothing further from the truth. Engineers have the ability to make powerful contributions to the economy, the skills to find solutions that make our lives better, and the chance to solve our deepest energy and environmental problems. Engineers are consulted for policy guidance in parliaments and approached by the medical community to develop technologies to fight disease.

Attwood fig 1In our capitalist society, respect is often demonstrated by payment. In his Review of Engineering Skills [2], Professor Perkins presented a graph of the early career salaries of graduates with various degrees (Figure 1). This plot rightly shows that an engineering degree gives young people the skills required to gain prosperous careers. However, aware that many of my British engineering-educated colleagues chose other jobs after graduation, I was curious as to how these figures compared to salaries across different occupations. These data are shown in Figure 2.

attwood fig 2Figure 2 shows that, with the exception of the oil and energy industries, UK engineering starting salaries lag far behind their professional counterparts. Moreover, UK engineering salaries three years after graduation (£28,500 [2]) remain lower than starting salaries in Canada, (£37,000 ($67,000 CDN) [4][5]) and Germany (£35,500 (€42,500) [6]). In order to attract the best and the brightest to engineering in the UK, both the salary and the prestige of the profession must reflect its importance to the country.

The recommendations I have presented so far, to protect the term ‘engineer’ and increase salaries, can be encouraged by higher education institutions, but are mainly the prerogative of government and industry. However, by considering the differences between my own experiences in Canada and Britain, I have also determined some areas where I believe the education system can make a difference to the attractiveness of the profession.

When I was 16 and attending school in a small town in Northern Scotland I had a physics teacher with an engineering degree. One morning he brought a tiny external combustion engine into the classroom. He explained how the flame from tiny propane candles caused the working fluid to expand and contract, powering the pistons. It was beautiful, shiny and golden. I realized then that an engineering degree could tell me how the world was powered and propelled and connected. I saw it as a road not only to understanding, but to the principles that would allow me to create something as beautiful as this tiny whirring engine.

The questions I encountered in my math and physics classes did not inspire me in the same way. They were concerned with planes, trains and automobiles, the stalwarts of engineering in the past. When these inventions were new they enthralled a generation. However, in my naivety, I assumed that these were challenges that had already been conquered, that there was little mystery left. Everyone is aware of the search for a cure for cancer, the struggle for world peace, but what are the great engineering challenges? I believe the most compelling answer to that question is green energy. The simplest way to make engineering an attractive profession in the future is to rewrite courses to have a strong focus on these issues. Green technology is often a footnote when it should be the title. In a broader sense, perhaps schoolwork should also be revised to mirror the experiences of today’s children. Many will not learn to drive until their last year of school, but most will have mobile phones and computers. Teach them how to understand the things they use every day.

I believe the diversity of engineering is one of its great strengths. I chose my current university because it offered me 2 years of general engineering before specialization. I believe that every student in the UK should be given the opportunity to understand the industry as a whole, not simply a small piece of it. In fact, I would go even further and say that the secondary school system should also consider introducing more diversity. High school students in North America may take as many as 12 courses in their final year, with mathematics and English compulsory. French students study philosophy alongside the sciences, even at university level. A student who, at the tender age of 16, decides to drop math and physics may be doing so with an incomplete understanding of what the subject becomes later on. The more opportunities you give a student to be inspired or surprised by a subject, the more likely they are to change their minds.

I saw an example of this while tutoring the materials engineering course at my university. A first-year student announced in our first lesson that she wanted to change course. She had not enjoyed the classes she had taken so far, it was too boring, too much of the same. As we progressed through the term, she became one of my best and most enthusiastic students. Materials engineering is very different from other branches, and is not a well-known discipline, but in it she found a niche she enjoyed.

Every university hopes they are instilling in their students the skills required for a successful career, and the confidence to allow them to go out and seek it. However, walking into work on my first day of my first job, I felt I knew absolutely nothing about being an engineer. There is no substitute for experience, and in many ways I learned as much during my internships as I did at university. My first engineering degree gave me roadmaps for problem solving, my work experience allowed me to practice these skills. Canadian universities have realized the potential of work in industry as an educational tool, and many engineering programmes include structured ‘work periods’ which are graded and must be passed. Known as ‘co-op’ programmes, they offer students the opportunity to take placements at engineering firms across the country and around the world. Not only do these internships give students confidence and experience – not to mention contacts – but they are paid, allowing students to decrease their debt while studying. This alone, in a time of ever-climbing university fees, could be a significant incentive.

I would also like to touch on an issue that has shadowed me throughout my engineering education. Why are there so few women in British engineering? This is a complicated problem that cannot be easily solved by including the practicalities of making lipstick in young girls’ education. This may catch them, but it won’t keep them.

Women are faced with a multitude of concerns with regards to their careers, but the one that preoccupies me the most is flexibility. I will want to have children one day, and I will want to be there to raise them, along with my husband. I have been taught to juggle several stressful commitments, and I believe I can carry on, but it will require flexibility on the part of engineering employers, not only for mothers, but fathers too. Childcare in company buildings, flex-time, working from home will all help. In terms of the workplace, engineering is still largely a man’s world.

My mother told me when I was deciding on a profession that as a female engineer, I would always be special, I would be conspicuous in the crowd. Every teenager wants to feel this way, and perhaps it is the best tack to take when trying to inspire other girls. It motivates me even now, when I consider a job unrelated to my field. Am I ready to be yet another woman engineer discouraged from carrying on? When have I done enough to prove the case for my gender? Fear of failure is a powerful force.

My final suggestion requires some creative thought and the support of many people across many industries, but I believe could be key to our success.

Popular culture is an excellent salesman. Television dramas bring a glamourized version of life as a lawyer, doctor or forensic technician to our living rooms, and cause a spark in the minds of young men and women. Engineering needs its own salesman. The closest I have found is Star Trek. The chief engineers were always likeable characters, but even more importantly, everyone knew something about engineering. No time was lost after a crash-landing or kidnapping before rewiring their tiny communicators to become a transponder or computer link. The shows were Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a Utopian future. A future where everyone was an engineer.


1. EW World Economy Team, The Economy of the UK, GB, British Isles (or Whatever You Want To Call It), 12 June 2013, united-kingdom/?page=full.

2. Perkins, J. Review of Engineering Skills, Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, November 2013.

3. Mosesbet, A. Top Graduate Scheme Salaries by Industry, Graduates.Co.Uk,, 16 December, 2013.

4. Tencer, D. Best Jobs and Cities for Grads in Canada, The Huffington Post, 2 July 2013,

5. Statistics Canada, Earnings, average weekly, by industry,, Modified 27 March 2013.

6. Study in Germany, The career ladder calls!,–21264.

Eleanor Earl

Eleanor Earl is an MEng candidate at Cardiff University and was awarded one of the two runner-up prizes in our 2014 student essay competition. Read Eleanor’s essay below.


Over 2.4 million remain unemployed in the UK1

A worrying statistic, but should the engineering community view this fact with pessimism or apprehension? Fearful that many are depressed by reading reports on ‘skill shortage’ this and ‘critical condition’ that, I shall try and redress the balance. After all, engineers love challenges!  Alas, between 2010 and 2020 engineering companies are projected to have 2.74 million job openings across every level of engineering profession2. Shouldn’t we count ourselves fortunate that we have a sector that still can flourish in the current economic climate (although I do recognise it has declined in certain sectors)?  Let us look at the positives.  The UK is in a great position, we have:

  •  world class engineering universities and research
  • world class engineering companies
  • world class reputations for engineering expertise and projects

The engineering sector contributes over 28% or the UK economy3. Although, being a modest engineer, I reckon it is closer to 100%, as nobody could drive to work or turn on a computer without us ! It is much harder to turn this statement on its head and ask where engineering does not play a part in the UK economy. Approximately 1.28 billion people live in extreme poverty  (defined as average daily consumption of $1.25 or less)4. Our UK engineering impacts (both positively and negatively) on this statistic. Can we risk thinking just in a UK context, whilst we contribute and bear the impacts of a globalised economy, especially, if we if we wish to increase this contribution further? In every corner of our world economy you can see the huge contribution that engineers  and  engineering  makes,  from  consulting  with  the  government  on  new infrastructure plans to research advances in nanotechnology.


Who am I? Do I have an identity crisis?

So what is an engineer? Like any resourceful engineer I used the internet, and googled myself to resolve this identity crisis: ‘’someone who solves problems using mathematics and science for society”.When visiting schools as a STEM Ambassador, I have seen that for many young people, engineers appear to be limited to fixing cars and white goods in our homes.  It is easy to forget how they brushed their teeth or made toast before they even reached schools that morning, although we all make a fuss when we cannot do either of those everyday activities.  Surely, this mentality does not help our engineering dearth? There is no need to point fingers towards anyone. Instead we should all analyse and progress what we already all do to educate young people to think otherwise.  How can we inspire young people to follow a career in engineering? From a recent poll as part of Tomorrow’s Engineers Week it is clear that the influence of school visitors and teachers on career choice is great but the influence of family and carers is greater. From this we can glean at least two key points: i) we may not have to venture far out of our immediate circles to make a difference and ii) outreach in schools is working well but we need to up our game. It should be recognised that no communities should be forgotten, especially if it is without its own engineering role models.


It is a truth universally acknowledged that shortage of females exists in UK engineering.

The UK has the lowest proportion of female engineers in the EU, with fewer than 10% of engineering professionals being women5. Surprisingly, nearly half of all co-ed schools failed to enter a single female candidate for A Level Physics in 20126, leaving few with the right qualifications to move on to many engineering roles. As we have all heard before, we should try to maximise the influence of half our population and consequently boost our economy.  This is partly the role of higher education although it mostly works with the ‘converted’.  There should be more recognition for existing university outreach programs nationally.


The great engineering brain drain

It is clear that the majority of engineering graduates move away from engineering after they graduate. Why do we lose engineers? There are many factors, some of which cannot be controlled and others that as a sector, we must try to address. Influences may include:

  • More generous salaries in other sectors?
  • A lack of desirable jobs?
  • Inadequate basic skills, and experience beyond qualification demanded by the market?
  • Heaven forbid, boredom

Earl fig 1Should the proportion leaving the industry always be a negative? At least this spreads engineering skills to other sectors and shows the transferability of engineering expertise in to other sectors? To ensure this is not a problem we could input more budding engineers, see figure 1, so that the ‘losses’ do not affect the overall number so greatly (but, of course, this is much more easily said than done).  Alternatively, higher education has a role in making sure these high losses are incurred. People can only make decisions based upon experience. More inspiring university lecturers, courses and opportunities might ensure people stay in the industry. Also, the delivery of effective careers information is needed, whether this be  courses, careers fairs, talks or more informal networking opportunities.It is widely recognised that there will always be need for theory to be instilled into students and if we are to solve complex problems, often from first principle, a solid grounding in traditional engineering skills and methods is imperative. In addition stimulating projects, working with industry with the opportunity to use the work in real projects is crucial.   Particularly at a time, when in some engineering sectors, it can be as difficult to gain summer work or a year in industry as it is to obtain a graduate position. These projects may also open student’s eyes to opportunities in the engineering sector beyond the confines of a ‘typical’ engineering course. 


”Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant” RL Stevenson

We are fortunate that there are many new projects and initiatives to provide students with these inspiring experiences and this should be praised for the impact they provide. Unfortunately, there is only space to detail one of these.  A recent introduction to universities across the UK has been the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Challenge, see the case study box below.   As you may know, Engineers Without Borders UK is a small charity, which only began in the early noughties.  Their approach ‘puts students and young professionals at the centre of our operations, providing them with resources and contact to help them become development professionals’7.  Of course, not every engineer will work for international development causes.  However, it is true that we must all be ‘global engineers’ and this is one project where these skills may be gleaned.  Engineers Without Borders UK also supports the development of students and graduates through courses, international placements, training and through the management of their student branches.  Over twenty-eight branches exist nationwide, led by students who organise a variety of activities both inside and beyond their universities.  This enables students to develop many ‘soft skills’ key to the industry. Universities have a great, often untapped, resource: students. Students have time and often boundless enthusiasm for their course. They may only be a couple of steps further in their engineering journeys thus enabling younger students, only a few steps behind, to relate to them. 

 Case study: EWB Challenge

The design program is for University students and was originally started by EWB Australia. The challenge provides students with the opportunity to learn about design, teamwork and communication through real, inspiring, sustainable and cross-cultural development projects7.

This year, students have worked on a project providing engineering and design solutions for project in communities in Timor Leste. The students’ ideas directly support the work of EWB-UK and its partner organisations whilst enhancing the innovations of young engineering thinkers. The projects are also reviewed at a national design competition, enabling feedback back to the students from those working in the sector, on similar projects.

In the past the students’ concepts have also supported communities in Vietnam, Nepal, India and Cambodia. In addition, students from architecture, planning, science, business and social sciences are all encouraged to participate, therefore enabling cross-circular developments and furthering the understanding of the role of engineers to other career avenues.


Implementing  these  projects  may  involve  risks  to  be  taken  by  higher  education establishments, in addition to significant investment of time and funds. This may be difficult at a time when they have been hit by reduced funds, reductions in staffing, the need to maintain accreditation and the pressure of engaging the ‘nine-granders’ in their courses.


Inspiring a generation

As iterated earlier, you can only make decisions through experience. Therefore it is critical that engineers in every stage of their journey, have people to aspire to be like and are provided with inspiring experiences if they are to be motivated and (healthily) challenged in their working environment. There are many male and a significant number of female role models in the industry that must be celebrated. This should be orchestrated at every level by industry and educational institutions, with support of the media.

earl fig 2It’s interesting to note that the number of Civil Engineering UCAS applications peaked in 2011/128, see Figure 2. Perhaps this is partly due to the iconic developments of the period including the Olympic Park and the Shard? Surely, media attention in these areas makes a difference to the outlook of future engineers? In addition, public attention valuing the work of engineers might help engineers towards feeling that their work is valued in society. Perhaps this is optimistic, but maybe, just maybe, this helps us avoid losing valued specialists to the ‘brain drain’. It should be noted that there is a recent steady increase in all disciplines, hopefully this is the sign of things to come.


A political perspective

It is clear that the Government is gradually realising the benefits of engineering in the UK indicated by their use of engineering views in policy and through investment in education, academia and industry. However, as we all know, investment in large infrastructure projects comes slowly, Heathrow’s third runway, High Speed 2 and the Severn Barrage are all yet to materialise. As the media regularly reminds us, the government often described as having short-term views and battles to keep public opinion on its side making socially divisive decisions difficult.   But if we are to live in a democratic society with sustainable planning regulations, is this the price we must pay?

It has been argued that careful redistribution of tax credits is required. Dyson Report, noted that  redistribution  of  the  research  and  development  tax  credit  scheme  from  big corporations to SMEs and start-ups my stimulate change9. In addition we have to decide whether large corporations should gain tax breaks for industries that, although require big risks, can bring enormous financial gains. These include renewable energy parks and hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ exploration.


“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” Henry Ford

There is no one answer, no single person nor an organisation that can change the current difficulties faced by the engineering profession in the UK nor its contribution to the economy. Instead it should be viewed as an effort by everyone. Engineers are brilliant at numbers and problem solving but sometimes struggle with the writing and talking bit. Basic structural engineering taught us that we are only as strong as our weakest element.

We must educate ourselves to tackle these challenges, but without alienating ourselves, whilst overtime working to bring the next generation of engineers and our communities with us.

Our four main targets to enable change are:

  • To educate the public about what engineers do and why their work is integral to society and civilisation both in the UK and globally
  • To support and inspire and future engineers in their engineering journey by building upon outreach schemes through industry, institutions and higher education and the current curriculum.
  • To keep higher education courses inspiring, reduce the brain drain, and equip engineers with more of the skills they need for our global challenges.
  • To work with government to bring about investment in engineering and sustainable economic recovery through our sector.

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