Creative Engineering

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Professions in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are vital for a successful modern knowledge economy. Yet many firms are reporting a large shortfall in the number of recruits. A recent study by the Royal Academy of Engineering has suggested the UK needs to increase the numbers of STEM graduates by almost 50 per cent in order to avoid the potential threat to business (2014, p.8). The research suggests that the engineering has an image problem that detracts many young students from pursuing a career in the field, with many holding an outdated view of the profession being too narrow, uninspiring, and not a significant part of the modern ‘service economy’ of the UK.

This is not the first warning the industry has given regarding the shortage in new recruits. The UK has been gradually dropping back on the number of patents granted when compared to other nations, and UK firms are continuously having to hire experts from abroad to plug the gaps in expertise. A 2012 report by the Royal Academy of Engineering noted that the current pool of STEM experts is already stretched thin and the median age of chartered engineers rises by a decade for every 14 years that pass, further highlighting the depth of the problem.

The Hidden World Of Engineering

Despite the public perception of engineering as a career for men in dirty overalls and hard-hats, the reality is very different. The Royal Academy gives a detailed picture of a continually growing and evolving profession that overlaps with many other industries and continues to change in line with our understanding and creation of new materials and technology. The expansion in computing has radically transformed what engineers are able to do and the methods they can employ, and many are unaware of just how central the role of engineering is today.

The reach of the engineering sector is astounding, with inroads into nano-technology, the film industry, fashion, software design, aerospace, construction, major international collaborations (such as the CERN project), sports, medicine and developing the next generation of personal gadgets, to name just a few. The earning potential in engineering is also a beneficial factor for many potential candidates, with an increasing demand for recruits in a variety of roles across the whole of the economy. This demand is only set to continue, with increasing evidence of UK manufacturing returning production from overseas to the UK, driven by the increased costs of shipping and the demand for products to be more eco-friendly with a small carbon footprint.

Focus On The Arts

The challenge is therefore to alter the way young people view engineering. Rather than appealing predominantly to the maths and science students, Sir John O’Reilly, a fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, has argued for a bigger focus on the creative side of the field. In this year’s Mountbatten Lecture at the Royal Institution, he suggested that engineers recognise the role of the arts in their work, going as far as suggesting a more inclusive acronym, STEAM, to incorporate science, technology, engineering, arts and maths. Engineering requires a high level of innovation to create new products and compete in the future global market. Imagination and design skills are required in order to find solutions to technical problems and overcome challenges facing the modern world.

A few university engineering departments have already begun to collaborate with art schools, with many offering courses with a combined focus on arts and technical subjects. The University of Dundee has a joint College of Art, Science and Engineering, teaching degrees such as combined Mathematics and Product Design, or a masters degree in Design for Medical Technologies. The University of Kent follows a similar path with its School of Engineering and Digital Arts, offering postgraduate degrees such as the multi-disciplinary Mobile Applications Design course. The Royal College of Art also runs an Innovation Design Engineering programme that pulls together a wide range of skills in creative design, industrial techniques, manufacturing, mechanical engineering and design research.

The closing gap between art and engineering is certainly a welcome trend. However more will need to be done in the future to alter current mainstream assumptions. The increased necessity for additional recruits in the industry will require a massive boost in campaigns to attract young people, and this will need a coordinated effort from the industry, education and the government if public perception and attitudes are to change.

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