If many British engineers suffer from an inferiority complex, it is unsurprising. Once they were lionised but that was a long time ago. Our latter-day heroes have been red-bracered young men bawling across dealing rooms and financial wizards whose monuments are their own bank balances.
For some time in the '80s there were even voices speaking of how we could do without many of our industries unless, of course, they were "sunrise" industries. Well the sun has not shone much since and small wonder that those with industrial nous who were unfashionably placed lost heart.
Elsewhere it has been different. The Japanese and Germans stack their boards with engineers; the public in Japan and Germany appreciate them. Both countries lost empires and wars. The former, without energy and raw material resources, borrowed many of its techniques from a uninterested West. The latter added the dynamism demanded by reconstruction to a residual, fearful memory of inflation that went back to the Weimar Republic, and set about building economic security.
Both knew, what we perhaps overlooked, that technology was not just about machines and equipment but about training brains. Both knew the value of the engineer. Most Britons, as Anthony Sampson observes (p30) would be pushed to name any after Brunel and Telford. Having invented the industrial revolution, the British have gradually lost interest. Our economic decline has continued.
There are signs that the alarm bells that have been ringing for decades are now being heard. Prime minister John Major is a hearer. He has acknowledged the debt we owe to engineers, and expressed his worry about the balance between classical and technological education. As yet he has not produced a charter, nor indeed an industrial strategy for manufacturers to lift their eyes to, but he has, it seems, digested the message.
The engineers could do something themselves. They are - with 47 institutes - our largest profession. A big step this year would be if the four largest institutes forgot vested interests and found common ground in the proposals which Sir John Fairclough, of the Engineering Council, will put to unite them.
There are hopeful signs, perhaps even green shoots. A survey conducted among 26,000 of the 182,300 engineers and technicians under 65 by the Engineering Council last autumn, found that pay in real terms for Britain's qualified engineeers and technicians had increased over the past three years. Some three-quarters of all engineers and technicians had also received technical or business training in the previous year.
The degree of career satisfaction reported by both chartered and incorporated engineers showed a recovery from the dip in the middle and latter part of the '80s. Engineers, it was found, were less tentative about recommending the profession to the young. Indeed, 76% of chartered engineers and 72% of incorporated engineers were also prepared to recommend it to a young woman, which indicates a modernity of thinking which might put other professions to shame. There was also quite a high appreciation of the effect of the single market which, it would surely be fair to accept, indicates a realisation of the need to be competitive.
All very heartening, if progress continues and others play their parts. The quick-rich glitz has gone. If the economic gloom is to be gradually dispersed we must look to making things and selling things, and value and emulate the people who do it. Once we did it well. We called it national pride.