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

The following paper is a summary of the introductory session given at the various debates around the regions where the subject, ‘Are our Engineering Institutions fit for purpose and relevant for the 21st Century?’ was debated. The paper does not outline what change means to make our Institution fit for purpose and relevant to the 21st, but puts the argument that change needs to happen. The overall response back from membership is that is a need for change both within the profession and within the IMechE.

Geoff Baker

October 2016


Our Engineering Institutions were formed over 150 years ago to meet the needs of a society and industrial landscape very different to the one we live in today. They were formed, and largely operate today, as members’ clubs primarily serving the needs of a few who choose to be active, I include myself in being amongst these few and I have personally found membership of my own Institution, the IMechE, extremely rewarding throughout my career.

However, we have to ask ourselves, is this what it is all about, is it just about us, or do our Engineering Institutions need to play a far bigger and important role in the society we live in today? Should we be asking ourselves, are we really relevant to the needs of engineering?

What is absolutely the case is that, Engineering Matters, perhaps more so now than at any other time in our history. We are all aware that engineering is involved in every aspect of our lives, energy, transport, infrastructure, manufacturing, everything we do and everything we touch involves engineering in some way.

Engineering generates £456 billion per year that’s around 25% of the UK’s GDP. Directly and indirectly engineering supports over 14.5 million jobs in the UK and there are an estimated 5.5 million people directly involved in engineering employment in the UK. Engineering is fundamental to our economy and to every aspect of the society we live in.

Now let’s look at the engineering profession itself. Engineering has 3.6 million qualified and practicing engineers and technicians in the UK; of those an estimated 2.3 million engineers could become EC registered via a Professional Engineering Institution (PEI). However, only around 300,000 have chosen to become a member of a PEI. Which means only 13% of engineers who could become chartered in the UK actually choose to do so; one can only assume that they regard membership of a PEI as being not relevant to their career.

When we consider our own Institution of Mechanical Engineers; we are doing relatively well with respect to membership recruitment compared to other Institutions, however, it can only be assumed that we still only manage to attract into membership a very small percentage of those who could become members. Overall, looking at all the PEIs linked to the Engineering Council, there has been a net decrease for the last 10 years, presumably because they do not see membership as being relevant to their careers. Even those Engineers who have chosen to join the IMechE only an estimated 20% ever actually involve themselves in the events and services offered by the Institution, i.e. seminars, conferences, knowledge transfer and career networking events.

The IMechE have active and vibrant member boards and committees associated with different engineering disciplines and activities, but the members of those boards and committees represent only an estimated 2% of the total membership.

The enthusiasm and commitment of our active members cannot be questioned, but should the focus of their involvement, influence and their considerable skillsets, be more focussed on addressing the needs of a much wider audience, both within and outside our existing membership? If this direction is taken, do we need to look at the role that Institution’s Executive should play in addressing the needs of this much wider group of stakeholders within the engineering profession?

When we put our IMechE Membership and our activities into the context of what has been discussed above, it raises the fundamental question, are we really relevant in big scheme of things? Sadly, the picture shows that we are not; we appear to be run by a few serving the needs of a few.

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The situation is repeated across the Engineering Profession. As a profession we are failing to deliver the number of engineers and technicians that the UK Economy needs. According to the Engineering UK Report published earlier this year.

  • 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 figures compare with a supply of 664,000 graduates and 270,000 technicians.

Whether these figures are totally correct or not, doesn’t really matter, they illustrate a fundamental point. The report goes on to say that if we could deliver on the number of engineers, it is estimated that this would create an additional £27 billion per year for the UK economy from 2022. In popular currency speak, this is equivalent to the cost of building 1,800 secondary schools or 110 new hospitals per year, which reinforces the point that our Engineering Profession Matters.

This shouldn’t be happening because, again as the Engineering UK Report says, our education system, at all levels, has the capacity to deliver on these numbers. However, at the end of our education process, our universities continue to produce more of the type of graduates we don’t need; because, I suspect, that there is more financial incentive to do so.

As a profession we don’t seem to be able to influence this situation; is it because we are too fragmented, with 35 separate Engineering Institutions and unable to talk with one common voice?

Are we all too busy looking inwardly and focussing on the needs and self-interest of a few?

If all this wasn’t enough, we are facing a broader issue of Relevance. There has been much debated over the past year 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. Younger generations are increasingly not seeing the relevance of joining a ‘club’. Our own Institution is not immune to these pressures; 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 a much broader range of stakeholders, industry, academia and society as a whole, must be seen as a major issue to be addressed as we consider change.

Change is essential. The UK economy has to have influential and effective Engineering Institutions supporting its needs. We have to influence and inspire, and be seen as relevant to far larger numbers than we are currently and to a far broader range of stakeholders.

What are key elements of change?

  • The major Engineering Institutions must come together and work with common purpose; which why the output and influence of the Uff panel is so critical.
  • We must have a clear understanding and agreement of our role and purpose in a modern 21st century society, which we have started in the development of our Vision and Strategic Objectives.
  • We have to become relevant and be perceived as being relevant
  • We have to find the resources to deliver change, which will require difficult decisions to be made and long standing norms to be challenged.

Reaching out and providing services to millions, which we will need to do, can only be done digitally. This will require resources orders of magnitude more that we currently have. However, our digital strategy must be developed in the context of developing our broader Strategic Imperatives.

In conclusion, the need for change seems to be receiving a positive response amongst our membership; we have completed the first stage in developing our new vision, mission and strategic imperatives, the next stage must be to provide detailed strategies and implementation plans against these imperatives and consider what resources, i.e. money, skills and people, and external help, will be required to deliver the change that will make us become more relevant to the society in which live.

It is vitally important though to keep our membership, both active and passive, fully engaged and involved in any change process; they currently provide a large percentage of our income and we depend on them for our existence.

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