10 February 2011

Engineers and Technicians Revisited

Almost a year ago, Dick Olver, Chairman of BAE Systems, told the FT that gas fitters, photocopier repairmen and other technicians should stop calling themselves engineers. BAE Systems is Britain’s biggest employer of professional engineers, who account for just over half the company’s 33,000-strong UK workforce. An estimated two million people in the UK are in jobs where they sometimes call themselves engineers, even though they may have only minimal technical qualifications. Olver said the wide use of “engineer” in Britain to describe a range of technical jobs damaged the reputation of real engineers, making it less enticing to young people as a career.
“Britain suffers from a language problem in that the word ‘engineer’ is applied to a lot of different people who do a range of jobs. Professional engineers need to take ownership of the brand and keep it for themselves.”
Mr Olver said he would start trying to change people’s perceptions of the term “engineer” by talking to Sam Laidlaw, chief executive of Centrica, which employs 8,500 gas fitters at its British Gas subsidiary. But Centrica is unlikely to co-operate with his campaign. “We plan to continue to use ‘engineer’ to describe our employees who fit and maintain central heating systems,” the company said. “The word underlines the fact that these people receive a lot of training and are well qualified.”
A few days later the managing director of Pimlico plumbers, Charlie Mullins, wrote to the FT in a similar vein to Centrica:
Dick Olver’s comments that gas fitters should stop calling themselves engineers are simply ludicrous. At my company, Pimlico Plumbers, we have 133 professional engineers who are highly qualified with years of training and experience. They often have people’s lives in their hands – dealing with boilers and gas is a dangerous job. Why should they stop calling themselves engineers? This is just downgrading their highly skilled jobs. Maybe it should be the other way round, and the pen pushers should stop calling themselves engineers.
However successful his business, Mullins' ignorance of (or just ignoring) what is involved in acquiring an engineering degree and then chartered membership of an engineering institution is regrettable. No doubt every day hundreds of Londoners are grateful for the services of his employees, but perhaps he could have looked at the policy issues being addressed by the Royal Academy of Engineering, and considered how extensive his staff’s contribution would be.

It being Britain, nothing seems to have come out of Olver’s protest and probably never will. But the issue he raised makes an appropriate subject for the first Western Independent post to come from South West France. Here the invariably competent and courteous artisan who comes to repair a washing machine or gas boiler is a technicien. For him to call himself an ingénieur would invite being laughed at (or in some parts of Europe prosecution), the term being reserved for those who have been through academic and professional training. In the case of a particularly prestigious group, such as les ingénieurs de l’armement, this may well mean a five-year course at one of the grandes écoles, sometimes followed by a Masters at MIT or similar in the USA.

There are other long-standing anglo-saxon confusions, particularly relating to healthcare. In France a chemiste is a scientist following in the footsteps of Lavoisier, not a pharmacien. Then there is Doctor, as general practitioners of medicine (GPs) are traditionally called in the UK. In France a GP is a médecin (arzt in german, by the way). A docteur en médecin is someone who has a doctorat, a higher degree. The UK equivalent would be an MD. These seem to be more common in fiction (eg Dr Watson) than in fact – in a fairly healthy life I think I’ve come across one MD, but lots of Doctors with first degrees (MB). In the last few years, I’ve noticed that dentists have taken to styling themselves Dr, which seems a bit presumptuous, though I know one who was awarded a PhD for research in restorative dentistry.

Of course, nothing will be done to regularise “doctor” and “chemist”, any more than “engineer”. Does it matter? Well, it is an aspect of a reluctance in the UK to take high-level skills and professional education seriously by comparison with other countries, particularly where STEM (science, technology, engineering ,maths) is concerned. The adverse effects on our prosperity of muddling along as usual are too long-term for politicians to care about, but inexorable for the rest of us.

If any technicienne, pharmacienne, femme médecin or artzin has read this far, please accept my apologies – these omissions are only for brevity.

The Background to this blog shows vines in Entre-Deux-Mers (Gironde) in late summer, shortly before harvest and after a lot of growth. By way of contrast, and less familiar, this is what a vineyard looks like after pruning in February.
Vines in Entre-Deux-Mers, February 2011

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