On Monday evening, 9th May 2016, I had the pleasure of delivering a speech entitled ‘Making our Engineering Institutions Fit for Purpose and Relevant for the 21st Century’. The speech was delivered at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers Annual General Meeting of the North West Region and the event was held at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston.The purpose of the speech, which was followed by lively debate, was to highlight the challenges, issues and opportunities that we are facing within our Engineering Institutions and within the profession as a whole.There were several points I made during my talk, which focused on the future direction of the IMechE and other PEI’s. I highlighted the concerns around the current forecast shortage of Engineers and the potential impact that this will have on the UK economy. I spoke about the fragmented nature of our profession and whether this was a help or hindrance in addressing this problem. I also discussed the issue of the relevance of Engineering Institutions in the 21st century and the need for them to change; should they remain as ‘members’ clubs’ that are funded by members for the benefit of members, or, should their purpose be greater, should they be organised differently to meet the demands that society will be placing on engineering in the future decades?I would like to state that the views and opinions expressed in this talk are personal views, but they are based around my work and experience of working with others in the profession and explore the need for change. I would like also to state that the purpose of the address was not to give the answers or put forward solutions, but more to explore the questions and get the issues out on the table:

‘Are our Engineering Institutions fit for purpose and relevant for the 21st Century?’

There followed a lively debate after the talk and any readers of this post are welcome to add their comments.

The following is a broad transcript of the talk.  

Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen. The first thing that I would like to state is that I am not here this evening to give the answers or put forward solutions, but more to explore the question and get the issues tabled around the question:

‘Are our Engineering Institutions fit for purpose and relevant for the 21st Century?’

Personally, I don’t believe they are, otherwise I would not be up here tonight talking about this subject; however, before we go into our debate it would be interesting get a show of hands, an initial ‘straw poll’ on this question.

(The majority view, at the start of talk, was that the Institutions were fit for purpose and relevant to the 21st Century.)

We are a member led organisation and we are funded, to a large extent, by members, so the views and opinions of our members is very important to help steer the Executive Team, Trustee Board and the Council in making the best decisions that hopefully help make us fit for purpose and relevant in the 21st Century.

Let us first explore the question; – Are we a fragmented profession?

I personally believe that we are. There are 35 separate Engineering Institutions that are registered with the Engineering Council, each one representing a different discipline of engineering. There are also many other organisations in the UK that represent different aspects of engineering, such as;

  • • The Engineering Council
  • • The Royal Academy of Engineering
  • • Engineering UK

And with regard to public policy, we have:

  • • Engineering the Future
  • • Education for Engineering

With regard to the promotion of engineering, we have:

  • • Big Bang Fair
  • • Tomorrow’s Engineers
  • • Primary Engineer and Secondary Engineer etc. etc.

All in all, we have about 50 different organisations involved in different aspects of the Engineering Profession in the UK.

You may say that diversity is a good thing for the profession.

Well, on the one hand, it could be regarded as a good thing that we have specific professional bodies that represents the variety of different technical disciplines of engineering.

However, on the other hand, diversity and fragmentation of engineering in the UK means that we are unable to talk as one voice with government, industry, schools and academia.

Is it any wonder that as engineers we have an image problem and issues explaining what an engineer actually does?

However, I would just like you to hold onto this thought for a moment; it is very relevant as to how we might look in the future.

This is not a new issue. I am of a particular age where I have seen various failed attempts to ‘Merge’ the Engineering Institutions and I think we have to look at why previous attempts to merge have failed.

I believe they failed because we think of ourselves as Mechanical Engineers, Electrical Engineers, and Civil Engineers; we are proud of the engineering discipline we have chosen to make our careers in.

Do we have any members of the IET here tonight?

I ask this question, because in more recent times, the Institution of Electrical Engineers tried to become a broader more encompassing Institution, and rebranded itself as the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

It is still the largest of our Engineering Institutions, but they have been experiencing problems since that change; in talking to fellow Electrical Engineers, some express that they don’t feel they have the proper recognition of their electrical engineering discipline and heritage.

In fact, according to the Engineering Council statistics, despite being the largest of our Engineering Institutions, net membership of the IET is decreasing year on year; they are losing more members than they are gaining, despite the significant resources being devoted to recruit new members.

So what is the picture across all of the Engineering Institutions?

Well the good news is, the IMechE is doing well, in comparison to the other Institutions. Last year the IMechE was the top performing PEI, with a net increase of 1170; next was the ICE with a net increase of 300.

In fact, the IMechE and ICE were the only major Institutions that registered a net increase in its registrations. Overall across the whole of the Engineering Council, registrations, in 2015, fell by 703; and this has happened, year on year for the last 10 years.

So, as a profession, we’re not even holding our own; and there is an even bigger demographic problem that will be hitting us over the next 10 years, when you look at the age profile of engineers and those who will be retiring.

Well, does all this matter? – Well yes, I believe it does; it matters hugely.

There was a report published earlier this year by Engineering UK, called ‘The State of Engineering’. It was a very comprehensive report and there were some significant Calls for Action that it suggested:

  • • Employers continue to report significant skills shortages in the engineering sectors at both technician and graduate levels.
  • • The numbers of those with engineering skills needed for recruitment before 2022 remains predicted at 1.1 million graduates and 550,000 technicians.
  • • These needs compare with a current supply of 664,000 graduates and 270,000 technicians

The anticipated demand for engineers is twice that of current supply; an issue of major concern for the profession.

There were also three overriding messages that came from the report.

Firstly, that engineering and skilled engineers make a significant contribution to the UK economy and its productivity; engineers will also be required to address and mitigate the global challenges that face our society, such as, climate change, transportation, ageing populations, food, clean water and energy.

Secondly, the report stated that the UK at all levels of education does not have the current capacity or the required rate of growth needed to meet the forecast demand for skilled engineers and technicians by 2022.

Thirdly, the report stated that, through concerted and co-ordinated action, the engineering community and employers in particular can make a demonstrable difference by working with schools and colleges to inspiring future generations to pursue relevant qualifications and go on to careers in engineering.

This is why inspiring the next generation into engineering is the IMechE’s No.1 Strategic Objective.

Engineering is a vital part of the UK economy, if we could meet this expected demand and deliver the number of engineers predicted to be required by 2022, then engineering employers would have the potential to generate an additional £27 billion per year from 2022. This is equivalent to the cost of building 1,800 secondary schools or 110 new hospitals. It is always helpful to express numbers of this size in terms of currency to help bring the scale of the challenge, and opportunity, into perspective.

So as an Engineering Profession we appear to be failing:

  • • Failing to deliver the numbers of engineers that UK economy requires.
  • • Failing even to attract members into our Engineering Institutions. (even those engineers already in the profession).
  • • Failing to work together effectively to address the problem.

If all this wasn’t enough, I believe we are also facing an issue of relevance.

There has been much researched over the past few years around this topic of relevance. Institutions and Associations throughout the world are in crisis through falling membership and increasing questions raised about their relevance in a modern digital world.

Currently younger generations are increasingly not seeing the relevance of joining a ‘club’. Our own Institution is not immune to these pressures; this is hugely important to our own Institution because we rely currently, to a major extent, on membership income for our very existence.

Maintaining the Institution’s relevance, not only to our members, but to all our stakeholders, industry, academia and to society as a whole, is seen as a major issue to be addressed.

At the beginning of this talk I posed the question:

‘Are our Engineering Institutions fit for purpose and relevant for the 21st Century?’

And we had a show of hands which indicated that perhaps we do have a few things that need fixing. I hope you can now see that we do have some major issues that need addressing as a profession.

What can we, as the Institution of Mechanical Engineers do to begin the solve the problems we are facing? Well we can’t do everything, at the end of the day, we ourselves are an Institution, bound by by-laws, boards and committees, things are pretty hard to move, and as I said we are only one of 50 organisations.

However, what we can do, and was decided at our Trustee Board meeting about 12 months ago, is tackle these issues by becoming the ‘Thought Leader’ for change in our profession.

We tabled that a federated approach could be the way forward for the Engineering Institutions to come together, in major areas, whilst still maintaining our independence as separate Institutions. We believed that this could be better than trying to merge. Some of you, as said previously, will remember the failed attempts with mergers in the past.

The federated approach is based on coming together on the major issues of common interest, like interfacing with government, education and industry and trying to solve the shortage of engineers.

We want school children to be inspired by Engineering, not be bamboozled trying to make a choice between which of the many types of engineers they should become.

The federal approach would mean coming together, whilst still maintaining the independence and focus of our major technical disciplines and indeed of our member engagement, both regionally and internationally.

We have found that we are pushing an open door when it comes to discussions with some of the major Institutions.

However urgent as the problem is, we must not rush into this. An independent panel has been convened to explore the major issues we are facing as a profession and what the solution might be. This independent panel is to be chaired by an eminent Queens Council, with Terms of Reference developed by the Presidents and Chief Executives of a few of the major Institutions, including the IMechE.

Not wishing to pre-empt any independent review, but the questions raised by a federated approach to integration could be:

  • • Should it maintain independence and recognition for the different technical disciplines around which our current Institutions are organised?
  • • In what areas should it try to come together on, and talk with a common voice?
  • • What aspects should still be handled by the existing Institutions?
  • • Could back office functions of the major Institutions be done more effectively and efficiently?
  • What aspects of Member Engagement could be brought together centrally or regionally?

Let’s look at this last point on the regional dimension and look at how the major Institutions are currently organised regionally:

  • • The IMechE has 16 Regions and 99 Area Committees.
  • • The ICE has 12 Regions and a smaller number of Area Committees (Branches).
  • • The IET has 15 Regions (Networks) and 42 Area Committees (Communities).

There are no common regional boundaries across all the major Institutions.

There is however, strong local, but ad-hoc, member cooperation with the major PEIs, not just with the above 3, but other PEIs throughout the regions. In addition, the ICE and IET have staff and regional offices to support their activities. This lack of regional alignment is also repeated internationally.

So, notwithstanding any federal agenda, and coming together centrally on major common areas, there would appear to be great advantage in considering closer integration and member engagement on a regional and international basis between the major Institutions.

Finally, to on our own issue of relevance.

‘Is our own Institution, the IMechE, structured in a way that is relevant to meeting the demands upon it in the 21st century?’

Our own Institution is not immune to these pressures; I spoke about this with respect to clubs, associations and member organisations across the world losing their relevance in the changing digital and demographic world we now live in. It is important to the IMechE, because we rely currently, to a major extent, on membership income for our very existence.

Maintaining our Institution as relevant, not only to our members, but to all our stakeholders, industry, academia and to society as a whole, is seen by Trustees as a major issue that we must address, we need to consider:

  • • Could we streamline our Governance structure to make it more effective?
  • • Should there be greater representation of specialist external expertise and stakeholders on our boards and committees? Would it enable our Institution to be more influential and effective?
  • • Should we remain as a club, ‘run by members for members’?

What about the digital dimension, and the role that the internet can play in bringing members together from around the world, and also using the internet for the delivery of our services on an advanced digital platform?

The ultimate question is; how can we get the money to pay for all this? At best we can only expect moderate increases in member subscription income in future years, if that. However, to deliver the solutions to the challenges that society and industry will be putting upon us, will be require access to resources on a far greater scale to what we currently have available. I believe it will be essential for us to look at developing significantly more additional revenue streams. This could involve the difficult decision of releasing assets or combining assets with other Institutions in key locations.

The major Institutions currently have 3 prestige buildings, within walking distance of each other, and all close to Government and the centre of power in the UK. Would it not make sense to consider one central Westminster based location from which a combined or federated body of Engineering Institutions could operate and talk as one voice to government and industry and by doing so, exert more influence to help solve the challenges that we face as a profession.

There are many dimensions to this ‘Journey of Change’ and it is vitally important that all our Members, Stakeholders, Members, Council, Trustees and Institution Executive Leaders are not only on-board with the need for change, but are all on-board and in agreement on what changes are required. That’s what evenings like this are all about.

I said at the start that I was here not to give solutions, but raise questions, questions which I believe we should have the courage to address and debate, and through that process help shape the future of our Institution and the Profession of which we are all proud to be a part of.

Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you very much and let’s open the debate up for questions and opinions from you.

End of Transcript

There then followed a lively debate on issues and questions raised by this talk and any readers of this post are welcome to add their comments below.

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