Engineering – a profession or a trade?

In many European countries being an engineer carries a certain kudos, like a lawyer or a doctor.   However, here in the UK there exists a strong likelihood that if you tell someone that you’re an engineer they assume that you wield a spanner, crawl under cars or fix washing machines .…

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no snob – I’ve served my time under cars and I fix the washing machine when it needs fixing.  It’s a fact of life that the term “Engineer” is a broad one that covers a great many disciplines and a wide range of skills and experience.  However, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the most talented and inspiring engineers in the country, who have put in many years of both academic and practical study to become experts in highly specialised fields.  And yet if they were asked at a dinner party what they did for a living, I can personally testify that “I’m an engineer” would not be met with much gushing.

I recall visiting my wife in her new office in the City a few years ago, dressed fairly smartly (I thought) to meet her for lunch.  A gentleman in an expensive-looking suit joined me in the lift and, after briefly looking me up-and-down, said “so you’ll be the engineer”.  The thought of being preceded by my reputation delighted me no end, up to the point when, in the most pleasant and helpful way possible, he said “you’ll find the photocopier at the end of the corridor on the 3rd floor”!

Obtaining Chartered Engineer status requires academic qualifications to good degree level coupled with several years of relevant engineering experience in a position of appropriate responsibility.  If, like me, you enter the profession through the craft apprenticeship route and then continue with day release you’d find that it’s an 8 to 10-year journey to obtain the prerequisite academic qualifications and then several more in addition to acquire the experience.  I could probably have qualified as a brain surgeon in less time if I was so inclined, but that’s the point …… most engineers I know have not consciously chosen the vocation above others, they are drawn to it because of their personal traits.

Maybe if the English language allowed for a differentiation between engineering as a profession and engineering as a trade perhaps this confusion wouldn’t exist, professional engineers would enjoy the same kudos as our European counterparts and I’d be more of a hit at dinner parties!

Perhaps I should take a lesson in modesty from an acquaintance that I first met at a friend’s bar-b-que party.  When I asked him what he did he replied that he worked in Chelmsford in sport.  It was only some time later that I found that he was an Essex and England international Cricketer!

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