UK: Stop doing the dirty on Britain's engineers.

UK: Stop doing the dirty on Britain's engineers. - In Japan and Germany, engineers are confident about their status in society; that society knows it needs them to survive. We need them too, says Anthony Sampson, and everyone must realise it if decline i

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In Japan and Germany, engineers are confident about their status in society; that society knows it needs them to survive. We need them too, says Anthony Sampson, and everyone must realise it if decline is to be reversed.

Why are British engineers so little known and honoured, compared to other professions, or to their counterparts abroad? It has always concerned me, as the son of an industrial scientist, since I first tried to describe Britain's anatomy 30 years ago. As manufacturing industry has declined still further, I have watched engineers become still more aware of their lack of recognition and influence.

While prime ministers have loaded honours on bankers, entrepreneurs or advertising men, engineers have been largely ignored. After the honours list was published in June last year W T Williams, the director of the Engineering Industrial Association complained despairingly that over the last decade he had "failed to obtain a single award for any one of a large number of highly deserving engineering manufacturers". Yet the importance of engineers to the British economy and industry has never been greater, at a time when industrial exports depend on daring new technologies, and relentless competition against highly-qualified rivals.

How many living British engineers can be cited by the supposedly well-educated Briton, who can roll off the names of Victorians such as Brunel, Telford, or Paxton? Can the British engineers ever recapture their early Victorian glory?

The early 19th century provided thrilling role models for engineers. When Samuel Smiles, the prophet of self-help, published The Lives of the Engineers in 1861 it became a bestseller with good reason, for their achievements were redolent of romance: his subjects were humble craftsmen and tradesmen, who became brilliant innovators. They discovered and developed daring new technologies while they were young men - like the computer geniuses Bill Gates and Steve Jobs today.

They were also able to span different skills with imagination and flair. The greatest of them, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was able to combine engineering, art and architecture with no sense of conflict, so that his admirers could claim he was the last great figure of the Renaissance.

British engineers still live in the shadow of Brunel; but it was a brief time of glory. His great achievements, like the Clifton suspension bridge, Paddington station and Great Western viaducts and tunnels are, as his biographer, LTC Rolt, described them, "the monuments of a brief heroic age of engineering as remote from our world as that of the great medieval cathedrals".

Already by the 1850s British engineering was being challenged by foreigners; and Sir Lyon Playfair, the Victorian chemist who had helped organise the Great Exhibition in 1851, soon warned that British engineering education was lagging behind the new German technical high schools. Both Germany and France built up their engineers as a distinct elite, highly qualified in the new "scientific engineering", but also trained to administer.

British engineers developed outside government patronage, in a more humble and classless background, with no grand structure imposed from above. It was an attractive, democratic tradition which still distinguishes British engineers from other professions. I have always been refreshed by talking to engineers, with their informal style, after stuffy encounters with civil servants.

But they paid a price for their lack of an elite education, their self-made roots and aloofness from the world of power. The word engineer came to be associated more with the "grease monkey" in overalls than with the grand technocrat and master-planner; while their increasingly specialised education and political inexperience limited their access to boardrooms or to governments. Most tragically, they lost that unity of vision of the early Victorians who had both artistic and technical mastery. As engineering vastly expanded into new fields, such as cars or electronics, they lost out in elegant design to Germans, Italians or Japanese.

The British specialisation was accelerated by the proliferation of institutions. It began when the original Civil Engineers refused to admit the most brilliant inventor of his day, George Stephenson, who set up the rival Mechanical Engineers. Now there are 47 separate British institutes ranging from welding to plastics and rubber, each jealously guarding their own territory. While engineers are the biggest profession in Britain, they still cannot speak with a single voice; some see this as the chief reason for their lack of status.

There have been many bids for unity. In 1977 the Labour government appointed Sir Monty Finniston, a Scots-Jewish metallurgist, wiry and forceful, to head a committee to reform the engineering profession. He was disgusted to find (as he told me then) that British engineers were rated below male models. His report warned that British industrial revival depended on the engineering dimension, and made bold proposals, including the founding of a new Engineering Authority to co-ordinate the institutes, and a re-organisation of education with broader qualifications.

But by this time the Conservatives had returned to power and as they were reluctant to intervene, the institutes dug in. "What I wanted was an engine for change," Finniston lamented. "Instead we have got a shunter moving along disjointed lines." He blamed the institutes, but many engineers blamed Finniston. "Monty wanted to drive the message home," says Sir Denis Rooke, the rugged and outspoken ex-chairman of British Gas, who is now chancellor of Loughborough University. "But he didn't take enough care with consulting the Fellowship of Engineering." (Now the Royal Academy of Engineering.) "The institutes looked down on him because he was a metallurgist," says Sir Jack Zunz, the former chairman of Ove Arup, "and not a member of any the big institutes."

The engineers remained divided, but there was soon a new attempt to unite them. In place of Finniston's Engineering Authority an Engineering Council was set up in 1981, whose chairman is now Sir John Fairclough, a former chief scientific adviser to the Cabinet office who also advises Rothschild's bank.

Fairclough, like Finniston was determined to bring the institutes together. He said in November 1991: "There is in some quarters a crisis of confidence in the future of engineering and the future role of every organisation involved in it. I believe it is no longer a question that can be deferred. It is imperative that the profession as a whole is structured so that it can provide a lead in the world where technology is ever more pervasive."

Was this not just a replay of Finniston, with the same predictable result? I asked Sir John, and he strongly denied it. "The institutes resented Finniston because he was commissioned by the Government, and he couldn't deliver. But I'm working within the profession. There's a greater realisation now that the engineering industry has lost its vitality; and fragmentation has contributed to the problem. A do-nothing solution is not an option. I've put my reputation on the line. We've got to do it."

Now Fairclough is putting forward a new proposal to the four main institutes, to create a single national body. "We're coming to the most delicate phase of our deliberations," he told me. "He's facing a crunch-point," says Jack Zunz: "the institutes are beginning to think about their vested interests."

But the engineers are becoming still more aware of their disadvantages, as a divided profession, with lower pay and status compared to the Continent and America, and without the political and financial expertise to assert more influence. The financial boom of the '80s, with the further decline of British industry, left engineers' salaries even more behind financial operators. Many of the best engineering brains left to become analysts, management consultants or marketers. According to one estimate, 40% of graduate engineers entering the technical side leave within five years.The politicians showed little interest in supporting the engineers. Mrs Thatcher was preoccupied by the City, "the people who put their money where their mouth is", and opposed intervention in industry. Nicholas Ridley, who took over Trade and Industry in 1989, had been a practising civil engineer; but he was not concerned to reassure his old profession.

John Major made a stirring speech in 1991, after becoming prime minister, in praise of engineers: "It's because of what engineers have done", he said, "that these days we live healthier lives, longer lives." He was worried, he said, that not enough of the best young people were going into engineering; and felt deeply that the reason was "that instinct embedded deep in our culture that previously tended to disdain industry and give more kudos to classical education than to technological education". But Major has done nothing to redress the balance. "Maybe we should all remind the prime minister", says Zunz, "to give some practical expression to his depth of feeling."

And engineers have lost out still further on the boards of major companies. "There was an amazing change on British boards over the Thatcher years," comments the leading architect Sir Richard Rogers, who has always worked closely with engineers in designing his buildings. "There always used to be an engineer as a director of every big company: now they're led by accountants, bankers or even PR men." Engineers still stand at the head of some of the biggest companies, including British Gas (Robert Evans), British Steel (Sir Robert Scholey), TI (Sir Christopher Lewinton), Lucas (Sir Anthony Gill), Esso UK (Keith Taylor replaces Sir Archibald Forster as chairman and chief executive in February), and most of the power companies. Ironically an engineer (John Birt) has taken over from an accountant (Sir Michael Checkland) as director of the BBC - one organisation where engineering is not a priority.

But most engineering and construction companies are now firmly run by accountants and bankers - or lawyers as is the case with Eurotunnel whose chief executive is Sir Alistair Morton. The giant General Electric Company is chaired by a politician (Lord Prior) and run by a statistician, Lord Weinstock, who is notably uninterested in engineers. Another engineering stronghold fell in 1988 when an accountant, Sir David Lees, became head of the old engineering company, GKN.

While the engineers lost out, the accountants became still more dominant: not just because of their mastery of money, but because their profession was highly organised in increasing its status and extracting the maximum fees. The growing emphasis on professional management did little to reassure the engineer. "Management has become a cult", as Zunz puts it, "with the idea that a good manager can manage anything, which simply isn't true. It makes it harder to attract the brightest and best into engineering if they know the company is going to be run by an accountant."

The engineers' retreat was more striking in comparison to Britain's chief competitors, notably Germany and Japan. In Germany most heads of the great engineering companies are still engineers, sometimes professors of engineering who combine professional and financial skills. "Only about 10% of the directors of major British construction companies are engineers," says Zunz. "In Germany it is over 60%. The fact is that there aren't enough high-calibre British engineers for the top jobs."

More important, the German government has close links with engineers and scientists. Their Minister of Science, Dr Heinz Riesenhuber, was an industrial chemist for 10 years before he became minister. In October 1992 Riesenhuber came to London to give the first Zuckerman lecture about the role of research and innovation, which aroused deep envy among British scientists and engineers, who resent technology being put in the hands of a classical scholar, William Waldegrave.

The German government has little doubt about the reasons for the neglect of British engineering. "The British education is so specialised," says the German scientific attache in London, Dietmar Greineder: "A-level pupils find science too difficult, and prefer easier subjects like history. Engineering is not posh enough. The Government never gave enough attention to engineering: its a negative circle."

In Japan the primacy of engineers is still more striking. The great innovator engineers who designed bullet trains, cars or electronic gadgets - Ibuka who invented the Walkman, for example - are seen as national heroes like Victorian engineers. When the chairman of Sony, Akio Morita, gave his engineering lecture in the UK in 1991 he told his audience: "In Japan, you will notice that almost every major manufacturer is run by an engineer or technologist. Here in the United Kingdom I am told some manufacturers are led by chief executive officers who do not understand the engineering that goes into some of their own products. Someone once mentioned to me that many UK corporations are headed by chartered accountants. That strikes me as very curious."

Who is really to blame for the eclipse of the engineer, and how can it be changed? The engineers themselves are now constantly arguing about it. In 1991 one of their most articulate leaders, Sir Christopher Lewinton, the chairman of TI, made a major speech deploring the low status of the "grease monkey". He blamed society for the neglect of the engineers on whom the nation's wealth depended; but he also blamed the engineers for their narrowness of view.

Lewinton urged them to get together to increase their status, as accountants did in the 1970s, and to improve their own financial education. "The lack of commercial awareness among engineers means that ideas are rarely turned into money."

But Michael Hoffman, the outspoken chief executive of Thames Water, insists that information technology is already giving engineers a new advantage: in a speech in March 1992 he explained how "the IT revolution let the engineer into decision-making areas". He plays down the need for engineers to organise themselves. "The quest for status is an issue that engineers cannot themselves improve," he told me. "Market demand will improve status."

Many engineers blame the media for the lack of public interest in engineers. The national papers are full of profiles of other media people, politicians, or showbiz stars; but rarely feature the engineers on whom the future of industry depends. The director general of the Engineering Council, Denis Filer, who was formerly in charge of ICI's engineering, detects a "measurable increase in the coverage of engineering topics", but it is hardly visible to the naked eye.

Few journalists have an engineering background; and John Birt is thought unlikely to generate a new wave of interest in his old profession within the BBC, which is traditionally technophobe. But the engineers must share much of the blame, for they have been too reticent in presenting their own achievements. Most engineers now believe that they must take action to unify their profession. "I've got no time for whingers," says Zunz. "We must put our house in order with the institutes."

Angus Buchanan, the director of the Centre for the History of Technology at Bath, who wrote the authoritative history The Engineers, blames the profession for "a posture which resembles that of an inferiority complex. It is uncertain about its scope and its status; it is uneasy about its relations with society at large ..."

Most senior engineers believe that their fundamental problem is their insulation from the rest of society, from the broader humanities and arts. Looking back on their great Victorian antecedents, the contrast appears both vivid and deep-seated. In Brunel's day, as his biographer, LTC Rolt, nostalgically described it: "Man spoke in one breath of the arts and sciences and to the man of intelligence and culture it seemed essential that he should keep himself abreast of developments in both spheres. But after the mid-century the two sisters became increasingly estranged with consequences disastrous to both."

The intense specialisation of later engineering and science made that unity impossible to maintain; and the vision of Brunel and others as the last Renaissance men faded fast. In the early 19th century the Royal Academy and the Royal Society could still embrace the whole field of arts and sciences; today scientific knowledge is infinitely fragmented, and the Fellowship of Engineering, set up in 1976 as a new national academy, is very separate from the two others (though many engineers are FRSs).

Yet today engineers are being forced back into the social and aesthetic dimension, as their technology has to become attractive to the consumer, as industry has to come to terms with environment and as they become more interlocked with architects. "The next new phase will be in eco-engineering," says Sir Richard Rogers, "in planning cities and environments: it's bound to change the engineers." It is hard to imagine most engineers in their present condition, with all their inarticulation, specialisation and aloofness, being able to measure up to these new opportunities and responsibilities. Even their ardent well-wishers, watching their failure to reform their own organisation over 30 years, must feel some impatience with the rivalries and evasions which have prevented them from taking the wider view. But they can truthfully pass on much of the blame to governments and politicians who have so blatantly favoured financial over industrial interests.

In the words of Sir Denis Rooke, who battled against British Gas's privatisation, "The real question is: has the British government got over the idea that wealth is created in the city? Our law-makers are lawyers, accountants, journalists and a few rich men - you can count the engineers on half a hand. So it's not surprising that the other professions get a place in the sun. The respect for engineers is bound up with realising that they make it possible for things to happen in industry. You can't change the status of engineers by talking about it."

And at the heart of the divide lie the schools which have so drastically separated the engineers and scientists from the rest at far too early an age. As Zunz sees it: "The crucial issue is the educational system, and the two cultures which lie behind it, which makes our engineers so uncommunicative. Some of our applicants have first-class degrees but can't write a proper letter because their broader education stopped at 15. The educational system has been shocking. People are the only investment we have."

The cost of this neglect has been visible in successive international contests, not least in the most ambitious engineering project of our time, the Channel Tunnel. It was an idea that was launched by the vision of French engineers, and hampered and delayed by the narrow vision of British governments.

When the construction was reaching a deadlock, the Eurotunnel company had to bring in an American chief engineer from Bechtel, John Neerhout, with a team of American colleagues, to push through the final stage.

Only governments, pressed by politicians and the media, can reform the education of British engineers, and break down the tragic early division of society which has distinguished Britain from other countries. The new national curriculum provides some correction, but far too little; and engineers will need much more positive support to be able to compete with their foreign rivals in breadth of vision. Only a more fundamental commitment by government to both engineering and industry can reverse the trend; but only a much more concerted campaign by the engineers will force the Government's hand.

Anthony Sampson is the author of the celebrated Anatomy of Britain series. His latest book, The Essential Anatomy of Britain, is published by Hodder and Stoughton at £9.99. For reprints, contact Anne Oakley (071) 413 4336 For reprints of this article, For reprints of this article,ring Anne Oakley (071) 413 4336.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

When should you step down as CEO?

Bob Iger's departure poses an unpopular question for bosses.

The death and resurrection of the premium customer

Top-end service is no longer at the discretion of the management.

What HS2 can teach you about project failure

And how you can prevent projects going astray.

35 Women Under 35 2020: Nominations open

Management Today's 35 Women Under 35 showcases the country's rising stars in business. Here's how...

Practical steps for breaking silos

Briefing: Adam Williams, former CEO of influencer marketing agency Takumi, shares what he has learned...

The Power 50: Proof that you can be a part-time CEO

Just a few years ago, executives were reluctant to admit they worked part-time for fear...