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Thoughts from the Ed - When is an engineer not an engineer? (4 comments)

Author : Paul Wolfe

The continuous input I receive from you, the readers, is always refreshing and it seems that the ongoing debate in this column has caught the attention of Joe Watson, a retired Chartered Engineer...

Paul Wolfe

Joe says: “Your correspondents have said it all, though one mightily important point has been missed, and that is the use of the word ‘Engineer’. A tradesman is not an engineer, and vice versa, and the best analogy is that of the nurse and the doctor. Both are immensely valuable members of society, but neither would claim to be the other. However, many skilled electricians – and the usual cowboys – happily write ‘Engineer’ on the sides of their vans. Regrettably, this influences the (mostly technically-illiterate) public, and also many teachers, to try to dissuade youngsters who may want to read engineering at university. The fact is that the tasks of tradesmen and engineers are two sides of the same coin, and both are invaluable, but the tradesmen and tradeswomen should be proud of their skills and not become ‘pretend engineers’. Maybe eventually, the public and the teachers would then learn the difference and advise young people according to their various talents.

Finally, have you ever thought that the silliest decisions on technical matters (and there are many) made by governments of both parties, might just be because there are no engineers in Parliament, and precious few ex-tradesmen either? Of course, they do have competent advisors, but do they actually understand what they are being told and the various possible ramifications thereof? And that may also be why there are no legal sanctions against the use of the word ‘Engineer’.

Thank-you Joe for your thoughts. It’s true that ‘Engineer’ is a term used all too frequently. I have heard about plans to protect the title, but whether this will happen is not certain. What is certain is that we have a situation where just about anyone can claim to be an engineer, which of course is going to dilute the term and harm the reputation of genuine engineers.

A story in EP's newsletter this week (Bright sparks embark on new apprenticeship scheme) tells of Electricity North West's apprentice scheme, which is now in its fifth year. As the story explains, the company funds electrical qualifications as well as vocational on-the-job training, and this is an important distinction because it offers an all-round education; something discussed often in this column over previous weeks. 

What are your thoughts on this though? Send a message to: and let me know.

I've just read your article in EP online for the 19th September with the comment by Joe Watson, and whilst I'm in agreement with his comments, just what qualifies someone to be an engineer? For example, are you only an engineer if you reach chartered status?

I have qualifications both in ONC Electrical Engineering and HNC Electrical/Electronic Engineering, awarded back in the 1970s, but I'm not chartered, so am I an engineer, or not?

I was intending to go on and do a degree in electronics, but when I saw that the first two years were a repeat of what I'd already done for HNC, I thought 'Stuff that, I'm not doing that all over again'. I'd been in education for 19 years from the age of five and I'd had enough. I was 24 and wanted some time to myself away from studying for a change.

The term 'Engineer' is much mis-used, as are many other descriptions in the English language, and it needs a clear definition of exactly what you have to do in order to be an engineer. I'm told in Germany the term 'Engineer' is akin to being called 'Doctor' in the UK. You cannot use it as your title unless suitably qualified and registered. Perhaps that's what we need for engineers in the UK.

Brian Jones

Just thought I’d add my voice to the issue of the title ‘Engineer’ as opposed to ‘engineering’ which many technically skilled people practice.

I agree that the public probably don’t realise the difference and thus some enlightenment is needed, both for the general public and for those engaged in professions who guide and educate our young people. I don’t think it should stop there though as there will always be someone who’ll claim to be an Engineer when they are not. I regret to say that I think legislation is required to stop this practice. Where are we going to get the home grown Engineers to add to future UK prosperity if the younger generation here are reluctant because they have the wrong image of the Engineer in their heads?

Kind Regards
Lee Wilson (MIET)

Now retired and of an age when engineers were a respected part of the community, I totally agree with your recent comments. Not only did I need to study on a student apprenticeship it was some years after that I was accepted by my qualification alone and that must have taken ten years to achieve. Sadly the demise of heavy engineering over the last 50 years in the UK has led to a state when 'real' engineers are a rarity. It is no surprise that any Tom, Dick and Harry can masquerade with the title 'engineer'. A good example going back to the 60s was the numerous shady second hand motor car businesses that set themselves up as 'motor engineers' and their prime knowledge was to overcome or hide any engineering faults just to deceive unwary buyers.

It is time we became respected 'engineers' as in Germany where the term ' engineer' relates to a qualification much the same as a Doctor. In this way British engineering will once again begin to gather the esteem the industry has sadly lost. This should not denigrate the tradesman as his skills are equally as valuable.

Tony Tilford

Reading the comments of Joe Watson in the latest EP email reminded me of a conversation I had thirty years ago when I was a student studying for a degree in Mechanical Engineering.

A friend asked me what I was doing and so I simply said I am studying mechanical engineering. Her response was, “Are you going to be a car mechanic then?”, and I politely tried to explain that I was actually studying for a degree and there was bit more to it than cars. She then blithely came back with the classic line, “Does that mean you will be able to work on the big lorries then?”

So the problem is not new and the term ‘engineer’ is completely devalued in the UK and has been for very many decades. The company I work for is Italian and I know that in Italy only those who have studied for many years (at least 7) get to refer to themselves as an engineer and can put the letters ‘Ing’ before their name, like Dr for doctor. Others not so well qualified are usually referred to as technicians. I am sure in the UK if you gave yourself the title technician, the majority of the public would give that more ‘respect’ (for want of a better word) than if you referred to yourself as an engineer.

One of the causes, amongst many, for the decline of the UK’s manufacturing sector over many decades is, I am sure, due to this lack of respect amongst the general public for anyone that refers to themselves as an engineer, or as working in engineering. A difficult perception to break and I wish all luck to those attempting to redress the situation.

Bernard Dawson, Riello Limited - Technical Director


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