Constructing a change in public attitude to engineering

The improvement in public attitudes towards engineering demonstrates a wave of cultural change, which must be nurtured.

The Public Attitudes report in March, funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, found that people hold scientists and engineers in high regard.

Nine in ten think that scientists and engineers make a valuable contribution to society and both are viewed as creative, interesting and open-minded people. This is borne out by EngineeringUK’s annual Engineers and Engineering Brand Monitor, which found that for all age-groups ‘interesting’ has triumphed over previous descriptions for engineering, such as ‘dirty’ or ‘messy’ and even the more ambiguous term ‘challenging’.  

This increasing interest is backed up by early evaluations of The Big Bang Fair 2014. It was a record-breaking year for attendees. Over 75,000 visitors, including more than 70,000 young people, teachers and parents, attended this year’s Fair at the NEC in Birmingham.

Over half the key age-group of 11-14 year-olds told us they learnt a lot about engineering, two thirds of young attendees took the opportunity to speak to someone about careers, and more than seven out of ten knew where to go next for more information. The number of young people saying a career in engineering is desirable increased by more than 50% compared to the national average. 

The Institution of Civil Engineers worked with leading business and industry for the built-environment to bring to the Fair its first Construction Pavilion. The hands-on nature of the pavilion made it a hit with young visitors. Putting inspiration ahead of brand, Arup, BRE, Balfour Beatty, Mott McDonald, Skanska and Taylor Woodrow came together to provide a range of activities covering water, waste, tunnelling,  construction, energy, transport  and health and safety to bring civil and structural engineering to life for enquiring minds. 

Understanding and support for the importance of engineering to the UK economy is becoming more established and visible among public influencers, government and media. Business Minister Vince Cable MP, Education Minister Elizabeth Truss MP, Shadow Minister for Higher Education Liam Byrne MP and Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood and the Shadow Education Minister Steve McCabe MP were among a number of parliamentarians who attended the Fair.

It attracted more media attention than ever before, with coverage including BBC Breakfast, ITV Daybreak, Newsround, BBC World Service, the Today programme, ITV Central, BBC West Midlands, Channel Four’s Sunday Brunch, the Alan Titchmarsh Show, the Times, Telegraph, Independent and Daily Mail to name a few. I found myself sprinting across the showfloor between BBC and ITV broadcasts at 6am on the first day of the Fair, because both wanted to hear about engineering careers in the same ten minutes before the 7am news. 

Inspiring future engineers is more of a marathon in relay than a sprint, however. It needs many participants and continued collaboration. With that in mind, it was very fitting that SET for Britain carried on the momentum of STEM inspiration on Monday following the Fair. This initiative is another great example of collaboration between professional bodies and, through its support and recognition, shows that parliament is getting it. 

Last week’s London Infrastructure Summit outlined clearly the challenges and opportunities ahead for the rapidly growing city. With a society set to grow to over 11 million by 2050, engineering will be at the centre of all infrastructure solutions, from transport and housing to energy and water.  And these are just some examples of the opportunities on the horizon for UK engineering, and the new careers that are opening up for young people with the right skills and qualifications.

There has never before been a time when engineering skills, industrial strategy and infrastructure have been so firmly on the agenda for all mainstream political parties. By working together to sustain positive change in public perceptions and win the hearts and minds of media and Ministers, we can ensure that young people see their future in engineering – and that the UK will have a future as an engineering world-leader. We need to act now.