Lord Foster, Sir Ara Darzi, Sir Christopher Evans: each of these is a recognisable figure within his profession. It's more of a challenge to name a current engineering role model. As Philip Greenish, CEO of the Royal Academy of Engineering, says: "There are not many engineers whom people recognise as being great in the way they look at [Norman] Foster and [Richard] Rogers and say, 'They're great architects.' We need to change that."
It's just one part of a strategy that culminates in the academy's "highest level ambition"—to put engineering closer to the centre of society. "We're identifying some key themes that are going to show very clearly the importance of engineering to society," explains Greenish. "The time has come for engineers to demonstrate that it's through engineering that issues like climate change will be addressed."
Greenish has run the academy since 2003. He says he has leveraged the skills of the academy's fellows—"people who are right at the top of their tree in either industry or academia, serious high performers"—to help him attract more people to a wider range of engineering careers, and to engage the academy more with the public and public policy process.
He has seen progress across the board. He cites the launch of the London Engineering project as an example. With a dedicated budget of "a few million pounds", it is expanding nationwide in order to widen participation in engineering by getting to "hard to reach" talent (including women and those from minority ethnic communities).
It's an ongoing challenge, admits Greenish: "There are real rewards to be had in engineering, both financial and in terms of quality of life and quality of employment, which are not very well demonstrated to young people today. That's a huge challenge for us and for others with whom we work."
And of course, keeping the talent and skills in the sector is another consideration, especially now that the UK competes with countries such as India and China, which are no longer content to be low-cost manufacturing economies. "There are lots of people who do a degree in engineering and they're creamed off into the City or elsewhere," says Greenish. "In many ways that's a good thing—you get people who've been through a rigorous education, who've been taught processes that are applicable in all walks of life. But if this country does not stay ahead of the game in terms of innovation, then we are going to slide down the scale of international success."
The academy rewards and recognises innovation within its own sector through its MacRobert award. As Greenish observes, a lot of the great ideas these days emerge from the smaller firms and university spin-outs. "It's not just the key players like Rolls-Royce and BAe Systems, it's the whole raft of smaller players where lots of the innovation comes from," he says.
"We don't assist them directly. The most important thing we can do is to improve the recognition of the contribution of those small and medium-sized enterprises to the economy. We need to champion the really bright people in those SMEs so that engineering is recognised for the value and importance that it provides for society."