Elon Musk is inspirational but engineering suffers from role model shortage – latest blog by Teddington MD James Henderson

The government has declared 2018 is the ‘Year of Engineering’. This has certainly got people talking about engineering, but while I think the intent is good, I think it somewhat misses the point of what is wrong with engaging people in engineering sectors.

A recent estimate by EngineeringUK that 186,000 new engineers will be needed each year until 2024 to fill the engineering skills gap. The average starting salary for engineering and technology graduates is £25,880, compared to £22,000 for all graduates, their research found.

I believe the creativity and capability of the UK is right up there with the rest of the world. However, it is not seen as a sexy industry to be in. This means that only a few of our potential students ever actually “desire” to become engineers.

Personally, I think the biggest problem with engineering is that lack of idols in the industry which people can genuinely look up to. Actors have fame, doctors have kudos, and bankers have money (and lots of it). Their sectors have superstars that are looked up to – not only in their own industry but by the general populace.

There are a few modern engineering celebrities, but compared to other sectors, they are few and far between and have, by and large, been swallowed up by large corporate entities. As a result, they form the perception that they have become detached from the engineering brilliance that got them there in the first place.

People like Elon Musk are visionary and truly inspirational, but had to endure a difficult school experience growing up in South Africa. According to Ashlee Vance’s biography on Musk, the future CEO of SpaceX and Tesla was thrown down a staircase by bullies who beat him up until he blacked out. Was he not “cool” enough? If you think back to your own school days, how many of the brilliant technical guys in your class was considered cool? Now, he is one of the most influential people on the planet, and in my eyes, continues to be so because it is still about ‘his vision’ and not about his corporation.

The real trick is, you cannot simply go around saying “do this… it is really cool”. People decide what is cool by themselves. Instead, you have to show people having fun, excelling, and very importantly, enjoying success. People will then become interested in the activity though a natural, sustainable movement of ideas. It “becomes cool”, because it actually is.

I think this is where “initiatives”, while well intended, only have short-term benefits, and the moment the incentives are removed, the drive is reduced. It is the responsibility of the engineering community, therefore, to sustain the momentum delivered by the ‘Year of Engineering’ initiative into 2019 and beyond.


Read James' previous blog here: How the cost of failure is holding back the inventors of tomorrow