What is Engineering?
Does the UK know what engineering is?
The UK Government’s Year of Engineering is a year-long campaign intending to introduce underrepresented demographics to the world of engineering by spreading the message of what it means to be an engineer. Young people, particularly young women, are underrepresented in the engineering industry, which has lead to a problematic skills gap as fewer and fewer trained engineers are available to fill roles in an industry with a high demand for skilled workers. To combat this problem, the UK Government aims to entice 186,000 young recruits per year into the industry until 2024.
The problem lies in a lack of understanding and interest in subjects related to engineering, and a lack of belief that engineering is a viable and rewarding career path for children. The 2017 report by EngineeringUK found that fewer than 30% of pupils aged 11-19 know what engineers do, and concluded that too few students are choosing to study subjects related to engineering. Fundamentally, children are not being given the introductions they need to enter the demanding world of engineering at a young age, which immediately closes doors for them in later life.
Understanding engineering can be a daunting task, and in an often misunderstood industry, the lack of appeal in children and teens only serves to widen the established skills gap.
What does ‘engineering’ mean?
The term ‘engineer’ comes from the latin ingeniare and ingenium, which have the same roots as the word ‘ingenuity’, and refer to the devising and creation of machines (which were once known as engines). ‘Engineer’ was once exclusively used to refer to those in charge of military equipment, but as technology has advanced and diversified, the meaning of the term ‘engineering’ has broadened to include hundreds of roles, such as biological engineers, software engineers, and even cost engineers. ‘Engineering’ now refers to not just manufacturing, but to a broad spectrum of activities concerned with design, development or creation.
What do engineers do?
Whether we realise it or not, developments within engineering are fundamental to almost all aspects of our lives. In an increasingly tech-driven world, most objects we interact with on a daily basis have been extensively developed by engineers, from the most deceptively basic everyday items to inherently complex medicines and machines.
Part of the reason for a lack of common understanding of the engineering industry most likely lies in the broad nature of the modern engineering field. Almost all of the world’s major companies employ engineers to develop their products and services, which makes it difficult to narrow down the engineering role to one division of commodities. Because the number of applications of engineering is so huge, perhaps it is easier to specify not what engineers do, but how they do it. The key academic skills of an engineer are STEM subjects - which stands for science, technology, engineering, and maths, with all engineering roles utilising at least one of these subjects to some degree.
Young people trained in STEM subjects are in high demand in the UK, but are also some of the most underrepresented in schools. The three single-subject sciences, biology, chemistry, and physics, have seen a overall decline in course entry over the last 5 years, reaching their lowest point in 2015. Another area of concern is the number of pupils enrolling in GCSE engineering, with the number of pupils studying the relatively specialist subject of engineering at GCSE level being just 1% of the number studying mathematics.
With such high demand for talented engineers, there has never been a better time to get involved in engineering, and with roles for engineers in almost all industries, there is no shortage of opportunities for young people.