Engineering Change: ‘It’s the economy stupid’

15th July 2016

Guest thought piece: Jon Prichard CEng FICE FinstRE, CEO Engineering Council

Three engineers (Everybody, Somebody and Nobody) met for a chat about the UN Development Goals in a pub. Everybody knew that something had to be done. Somebody said that they would do something and Nobody did it. Sound familiar?

In October 2006, Nicholas Stern produced a report [1] for the UK Government which stated that climate change is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure that we have ever seen, presenting a unique challenge for the economy. Clearly if this global challenge is not addressed, then it won’t just be the economy that suffers. However, society has a tendency to take a short-term view with the net result that the actions necessary to address the long term impacts get overlooked.  This is what former US Vice-President Al Gore highlighted in his 2006 film, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. Although some political progress has been made in the decade since these thought-provoking interventions were published (e.g. COP21 and the Paris Agreement), actual progress in reducing emissions has been slow and that which has been achieved, has been as much due to global recession as it has to directed action. So should we look at these inconveniences afresh, through a new paradigm?

Engineers Without Borders UK, in setting out its recently launched five year strategy, starts by summarising some of the grand challenges that society faces today, presenting some of the irrefutable evidence that demonstrates that change is really needed; whether this is delivering a reduction in CO2 emissions to reduce the impact of Green House Gases on the environment; or whether it is providing access to clean water as a basic human right. This is what ‘engineering change’ is all about.

Jon speaking at the EWB Challenge Finals 2015

The question that we must ask ourselves is: who will lead society to a brighter future? Global leadership has to start somewhere. Engineers Without Borders UK presents a compelling argument that engineers and engineering have a vital role to play in this respect. This shouldn’t be a surprise. From our personal experience, we know that a doctor may only save lives patient by patient, whereas an engineer, through the provision of sanitation for example, can save lives community by community.

The new Engineers Without Borders UK strategy argues that if we focus our commitment on putting people first (and for people, read society), then we can inspire engineers to place greater importance on ethical, culturally sensitive and environmentally sound solutions. There is a sound logic flow in this statement which engineers should easily be able to relate to, and as it happens it also fits with the charitable objects of most of the sector’s professional bodies. So if we have already committed to the agenda, how do we ‘make it so’?

In the UK, professionally registered engineers and technicians when becoming professionally qualified make a commitment to behave in a sustainable and ethical manner. The UK Standard for Professional Engineering Competence (UK SPEC) describes commitment as:

‘Registered engineers and technicians demonstrate a personal and professional commitment to society, their profession and the environment. They are required to show that they have adopted a set of values and behaviours that will maintain and enhance the reputation of the profession.’

However, there is a gap between what is written in a standard that is accessed infrequently and the behaviours that we see around us on a daily basis. If every professional engineer has agreed to global responsibility, why is there a lack of progress in implementing the necessary changes? DE Hussey in his book ‘How to manage organisational change’ tells us that those tasked with implementation can respond in one of four ways depending on the effort required and the personal agreement with the goals (see figure 1 below).

Figure 1: Responses of Implementers of Change


Currently there are too many ’Dissenters’ ‘Pretenders’ and ‘Followers’, and not enough ‘Leaders’. Engineers Without Borders UK argues that in order to create a different future, and to influence individuals to become ‘Active Global Citizens’, then we need to encourage a more diverse workforce. Other nations can do it, so why can’t we? The UK, for example, has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, at less than 10%, while Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus lead with nearly 30% [2]. Our efforts to attract more females into engineering over the past 40 years, which have relied on re-packaging the existing product, have had little success. So maybe it is time to change the product and subsequent processes?  This is something that the Engineering Council Board can look at as a part of its own strategy review, which is about to commence.

If we do manage to address diversity in the profession through both attraction and retention, then not only will it help address the public perception challenge, but it will also help to alleviate the increasingly global engineering skills shortage. This is in turn helps us to meet both productivity and growth targets. Implementation is therefore a ‘no-brainer’. As President Bill Clinton once said: ‘It’s the economy stupid’.

Read more about Engineers Without Borders UK’s new five year strategy.

Written by Jon Prichard, CEO, Engineering Council, July 2016

[1] Lord Stern of Brentford, Professor of Economics and Government, LSE.

[2] WES:

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Comment (1)

Andrew Goodman

03 November 2016
There is a shortage of engineers about as much as there is a shortage of housing in the UK. It isn't a problem for anyone other than those who benefit from such a situation. Engineers are underpaid and undervalued, hence people decide to not study the difficult subject and enter the 'profession' to earn a rubbish salary when compared to consultant doctors, lawyers, and especially bankers. The labour market is a market like all others. If wages are too low, the supply and demand adjusts until engineers are brought back into the market. In other counries, even Europe, engineers are highly regarded and highly remunerated. Until the UK does the same, we will have a shortage of them.