The word ‘engineer’ and what it means around the world

In the UK, the profession gets mixed up with all sorts of other jobs, such as mechanics, plumbers, and electricians. How can it be defined to represent the work properly?

When I was around 14 or 15, I was obsessed with The Apprentice (2005-) and told a family friend my dream career was to be an inventor. He gave a little chuckle and replied, “There’s no such thing as an inventor anymore. You mean ‘engineer’.” I remember being taken aback. Engineers weren’t as radical as inventors. They fix things, work with spanners and screwdrivers, and are found wearing jumpsuits in dusty workshops. Inventors – in my mind – were thinkers, people who have grand ideas to solve problems small and large. They sat at the dead of night sketching or experimenting with the forefront of technology.

Soon after, a teacher asked me a few questions. “Are you good at maths?” I was. “Physics?” Again, reasonable. The crucial point was that they knew I loved his subject: Product Design. The combination of ‘good at maths’, ‘good at physics’ and ‘enjoys design’ was what they needed to know to nominate me for the Arkwright engineering scholarship, which turned out to be the opportunity and awareness that decided my career path.

The whole debate begs the question: what does the word ‘engineer’ really mean? The dictionary definition is ‘a person who designs, builds, or maintains engines, machines, or structures’. Design, build, and maintain are three key verbs in the role, but the limiting applications here are concerning. I know engineers who have worked in brain surgery process, sustainability strategies, and extreme weather modelling.

Going back to the Medieval Latin roots of the word, however, and you get the word ingeniator, simply ‘one who creates’. The word therefore has endless connotations and the courses and jobs sitting under the title of ‘engineering’ vary massively as a result.

The UK, particularly, has an issue defining the role of engineers. In a 2019 Engineering UK survey, only 24 percent of students, aged 11-19, said they knew a lot about what engineers did. The same cannot be said abroad. In Canada, the title of engineer is protected by law, making it illegal for anyone without a license to work. In Germany, engineers have the title of Dipl.-Ing (Diplomatic Ingenieur) in the same way that doctors – medical or otherwise – have a separate moniker on your name, either Dr or PhD.

It is widely known, that while engineers in the UK enjoy good salaries and job security, in Canada, Germany, and also the US, there is more money in the role because engineering is a more protected term. The word is saved for technical, highly qualified problem solvers in the field or office rather than being handed out to any worker who ‘designs, builds, or maintains’.

Here, however, the role of engineers gets mixed up with mechanics, plumbers, electricians, and other skilled workers who have varied job tasks. They still fit the dictionary definition of engineering, but a misperception of the engineering industry is caused by the fact that these professions are the most prominent use of the word in the public eye.

What do engineers actually do then? It’s a really difficult question to answer because, frankly, it varies a lot. Buzzwords include design, analysis, testing, and manufacture. It’s easier, though, to imagine centred around a product.

Let’s say you’re working on a self-driving car project. The first stage is design. What does it look like? What shape profile is needed for the best aerodynamics? How is it powered? Is low cost more important than high performance? How does the car know when to stop or not? Prioritising objectives and balancing requirements are key here.

Analysis then assesses the design against hard requirements, including structural performance, cost, and weight. The results are then fed back into design changes – e.g. reinforcing a joint – and that cycle then repeats. Design for manufacture is a huge area of interest, and then any physical prototype needs to undergo any testing. There are also many more sub-areas of focus which engineers specialise in, but the design process underpins them all.

What is more fascinating – as we live in unpredictable times – is seeing the engineer develop philosophical traits. Sustainability, ethics, and people-centred design are becoming more and more important for the role. Real high-level thinking now goes into these aspects. Take the self-driving car: the big discussion isn’t whether they work, but what they decisions they make and whether they are safe. Would they crash into a tree to risk the passenger’s life or risk hitting a pedestrian? To ease any concerns, and I’m a big self-driving var fan, there would unlikely be a two-sided decision as such and self-driving technology will be a huge step in consistent safety from any human operated vehicle.

What the conversation does prove is that engineers need to be thinkers and problem solvers. People who adapt to real world challenges and imperfections. The role title should be saved for those who tackle unique problems each day, rather than repeating a standard practice. It really is an exciting career and has countless possibilities, so if you’re considering engineering, look outside the box!


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