The future of professional engineering

Materials World magazine
10 May 2019

What does it mean to be a professional engineer today? Engineering Council MarComms Manager Kate Webster discusses the future of skills.

At its most basic definition, to be a professional is to be paid for a particular activity, on the grounds that you have reached a certain level of proficiency. But the contemporary idea of professionalism encompasses much more than that. As described by Chief Nursing Officer for Scotland, Ros Moore in 2012, when discussing professionalism across healthcare, ‘it implies a commitment to vocation and to public interest, and presumes adherence to a set of values that are owned and understood by all’.

So how did the idea of professionalism evolve, how is it currently understood and what does that mean for the future of professional skills in engineering? The term professional comes from Middle English – profes (adjective, having professed one’s vows) through Anglo-French and Latin. As people became increasingly specialised in their trade, often through legally binding indentures or apprenticeships, they began to profess their skill to others, vowing to perform that trade to the highest standards.

In 1800, the use of profess was still more common than professional, which slowly increased from around 1900, showing the most significant rate of growth in the 1960s and 1970s. From the Middle Ages, the city guilds and livery companies had a long history of providing training and ensuring standards in specialised trades through a system of apprenticeships and guild memberships, but this was increasingly superseded by the development of learned societies and institutions.

Professional bodies

In the UK, the earliest formal recognition of the importance of engineers came with the founding of the Corps of Engineers in 1717, and the formation of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) in 1818 then brought engineering recognition into civilian society. Technical training began to be offered by mechanics’ institutes, such as the London Mechanics’ Institution (LMI). Of the 576 original members of the LMI, 24 described themselves as engineers and by May 1826, practical school of mechanics classes were being offered to members by mutual instruction.

The formation of learned societies based around the UK coalfields began in response to the need to share best practice to address the number of disasters occurring in the industry. The significance of the 19th Century railway economy led to the creation of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1847, and the transformation in communications resulting from the use of electrical telegraphy led to the establishment of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1871. At least eight mining-related bodies formed between 1838-1878 and these federated to form The Institution of Mining Engineers (IMinE) in 1889. The Institution of Mining and Metallurgy (IMM) was formed in 1892 and both bodies were ultimately granted Royal Charters on 9 February 1915. The field of engineering continued to grow and become more specialised, which saw a rise in the number of societies and institutions.

By the mid-1950s, a significant demand arose for a central body to set standards for education and training, and to represent the wider profession. This led to the creation of the Joint Council of Engineering Institutions, later the Council of Engineering Institutions (CEI), in 1964. Following criticism of the CEI, a Royal Commission was established to review the organisation and utilisation of the UK engineering profession.

The central recommendation of its 1980 report was that the government should establish an authority whose members were to be appointed ‘to advance education in, and to promote the science and practice of engineering for the public benefit and thereby to promote industry and commerce’. This effort aimed to promote engineering and establish uniform professional standards across different societies, institutions and specialisms. The outcome was the establishment of the Engineering Council in 1981.

Setting a standard

The Engineering Council successfully published Standards and Routes to Registration (SARTOR) in 1985 and established an auditing role to assess the ability of the professional engineering institutions to champion the standards for professional registration. In January 1995, the Engineering Council published its competence and commitment standards, which contained proposals for new standards of education and training to meet the needs of British industry tied to business objectives. Developed from the policy of the original SARTOR of 1985, engineers and technicians who wished to join the Engineering Council Register now had to demonstrate not only competence to perform their professional work to the necessary standards, but also commitment to maintain that competence, to work within the professional codes, and to participate actively in the profession. This formal recognition that competence on its own is insufficient to establish and maintain public trust was an important step.

The standard, now known as The UK Standard for Professional Engineering Competence (UK-SPEC) is reviewed every five years to ensure it stays relevant, flexible and future-ready. To remain relevant, it has to accommodate changes in the knowledge and understanding, skills and behaviours required of engineering professionals, and in the ways in which these are developed throughout their careers.

The Engineering Council ran a public consultation as part of the latest Standards Review asking respondents to consider the future needs of professionals and the profession, and how the nature of engineering practice might develop in the next 20 years. Responses were received from individual engineers, members of the public, universities and institutions, giving a broad picture of factors likely to affect the future of engineering. The importance of systems-thinking and understanding the whole lifecycle were identified, along with the need for a greater emphasis on professional behaviour, ethics, sustainability, safety and commitment to maintaining competence through continuing professional development.

Responses were wide-ranging possible changes to engineering practice, and indicated some of the ways in which engineering skills will need to develop to keep up with change. Themes that emerged included the impact of AI and digital developments on different types of engineering roles and decision-making, and reduced demarcation between and beyond traditional engineering disciplines, with an increase in multi and inter-disciplinarity. An emphasis on creativity, innovation and management of change was stressed, alongside the increasing need for lifelong learning, underpinned by a strong foundation of fundamental principles. Respondents highlighted the importance of international recognition, cultural awareness and language skills for engineers often working internationally and across time zones, as well as changing work patterns, such as agile, lean, team-based, non-hierarchical, cross-cultural working.

Planning ahead

The future needs of professional engineers identified by respondents included whole-life safety, an awareness of disruption, more design and innovation skills alongside the development of data skills, greater commitment to CPD, a stronger focus on environmental/sustainability, broader technological focus, and awareness of new ethical challenges. Crucially, responses also highlighted the importance of engineering professionals having a broad view and awareness of the impact of engineering activities, and decisions on society and the environment – ‘why we engineer’.

This greater understanding and a commitment to behave ethically is a key component of professionalism as it is understood today. As the ICE Code of Conduct puts it, ‘Members of the ICE should always be aware of their overriding responsibility to the public good’. A version of the Hypocratic oath, written around 2,500 years ago and often described as first, do no harm, has been used by physicians since a 1508 ceremony at the University of Wittenberg, Germany, and The Centre for Ethics in Medicine at Bristol University, UK, has developed its own version, which starts, ‘I will practise my profession to the best of my knowledge and ability with conscience and integrity’.

Professionally registered engineers are required to recognise that they have obligations, not only to their client or employer, but to society, the profession and the environment. It is this personal commitment to act in an ethical way that sits at the heart of what it means to be a professional engineer - not only having the relevant knowledge and skills, but using them to do the right thing.

As we move into a future of rapid developments in technology and in working practices that create new ethical challenges, the focus on ethical behaviour may become even more important. When dealing with the new or unfamiliar - from autonomous cars to nanotechnology in food packaging - the public’s ability to trust engineering professionals and the independence of their advice is vital. Professional registration provides a benchmark through which the public, employers and their clients can have confidence that registered engineers and technicians have met globally recognised professional standards. It also offers a framework for those registrants to continue to develop and enhance their competence and demonstrate their commitment to working in a professional, ethical and sustainable way.