Meet the engineers: Forget the spanners and overalls, modern engineering is far more exciting.
Forget the spanners and overalls, modern engineering is more exciting. From the examples below, it's a sector which encompasses so much more – from harnessing big data to helping the sick recover, from getting the most out of virtual reality, to unleashing creativity.
And it has healthy job prospects. Every year until 2024, the country will need to find 186,000 people with the right skills to fill jobs in engineering, says EngineeringUK.
Engineering currently makes up 15 of the 32 occupations the UK opens up for skilled immigration. Teachers approve too – some 96 per cent say they’d recommend a career in engineering to their pupils, and now 51 per cent of 11 to 16 year olds say they’d consider entering the sector.
It’s a socially useful profession that has a real effect on people’s lives, says Stephen Howse, who’s policy coordinator at Semta, the engineering and manufacturing employers group. “Engineers are by nature problem solvers and innovators.”
Name: Vinita Madill,
Place of work: European Space Agency, Noordwijk, The Netherlands,
Job title: Space Operations Engineer
Job description: Designing spacesuits and working on human spaceflight projects
One of my earliest memories is of being in the library. I always loved space when I was younger and I found every book that I could about it – I’d flick through the pages, looking at the stories of NASA, astronauts and space shuttle missions. I saw an image of a young woman with brown hair like me, in a space suit, with a British flag on her arm. The caption read ‘this is Helen Sharman and she is the first British astronaut’. I think at that moment I realised what I wanted to be.
I really had to believe in myself and also persuade other people around me that a career in space was actually feasible; something that I could do. I was lucky to have people around me - my parents and my teachers - who really encouraged me to just tinker with things and learn about technology. It helped that my dad is an engineer, who showed me how to do things such as take apart the television. I think being exposed to technology, and learning at a young age about the impact you can have with technology was inspiring.
I’m now a space operations engineer. What that means is that I carry out operations on the space station and I also develop operations for future projects. One of the things that I love most about my job is that space is naturally a global industry. We get to work with people from around the world, and you really need that diversity and creativity to solve the difficult problems of today.
One of my biggest achievements to date is the skin suit project. While on the space station, astronauts lose around two to three per cent of their bone mass over the course of six months. They also grow about five to seven centimetres in height and that can be quite painful, so we designed a suit that can prevent that. It’s really exciting to see something that I worked on in my early 20s being used and actually making a difference. I got to see it through, from drawings of early prototypes, to now being in use by astronauts on the international space station.
The stereotype of an engineer – somebody who works with tools in a lab - needs to change. Engineering for me is really creative. You do need that technical background, but to problem solve, you need to be really inventive.
A lot of people grow up wanting to make a difference, but there seems to be a disconnect between wanting to make change things and actually knowing that the way to do that is a career in engineering. You can have an amazing impact on the world.
Charles Burr, 25
Place of work: Corner Wearables, Manchester
Job title: Co-founder and chief executive
Job description: Focuses on the tech side of the business, developing the software
Growing up I really had no idea what exactly I wanted to do. I have an analytical mind so engineering was a natural choice.
When I went to university I realised the skills I was learning could be used to solve anything, and that was a really powerful feeling. Engineering is through and through about problem solving.
Corner came about through my interest in tech, along with boxing. From just training on a day-to-day basis, you start to see the things that are missing - not knowing exactly how many punches you’re throwing around for instance. I don’t know on a given day what my fitness level is. I don’t know if I’m improving, and in a sport like boxing, your mental state is so important. You need that confidence in yourself. If you go into the ring doubting yourself, you’ve already lost. Knowing I’m at my peak performance level is critical. With the skill set that engineering gives, you can start to notice these problems.
Much of engineering takes place outside of the workshop. It’s about meeting the people you’re building for, and it’s been fantastic to work with up-and-coming fighters - people who are now at the top of their game and in the Olympic team - characters that you never saw yourself in the same room with, let alone helping them out, or learning from them.
But then also to be able to get close to the fight and to gather statistics is inspiring. Then the exciting part will be broadcasting this and sharing it with other people. All the analytics that we’re collecting ringside will be available to viewers at home - we’re boosting their fight experience.
We just want to see people using this technology and benefiting from it. And that’s the exciting part, that we can build something that people can have in their hands and use every day.
The best part for me is that engineering has given me skills to build a career and earn a living doing something I love.
Chris Caulcrick, 24
Place of work: Imperial College, London
Job title: PhD Researcher
Job description: Currently working in the Biomechatronics Lab on exoskeleton research
The more you look into engineering, the more you realise you are surrounded by it. Even in your own home, most of your possessions will have involved some degree of engineering in the design and production.
Growing up, I was very interested in gadgets and technology, and I think that was a big part of my decision to become an engineer. I was always fascinated by how things worked and how they were put together. As a kid I was always taking things apart and poking around to see what was happening inside.
I studied mechanical engineering as it seemed to be the broadest discipline within the sector. It was a case of not wanting to limit my options.
I work in bio mechatronics. This is essentially the cross over between robotics and the human body. A major application for robotics is within medicine. My contribution is trying to use these technologies to help people in need operate robotic appliances and devices, such as prosthetic limbs and wearable exoskeletons more effectively.
The technology that we develop helps people directly, and that’s a big part of what makes this so rewarding. A direct outcome of my project is going to be an interface between one side of a stroke patient’s body and the other. And the idea is that the patient’s affected side will be operated using information that we get from the unaffected side - this will help stroke patients in their rehabilitation.
I expected engineering to be very technical, and to focus on the mathematical and scientific side of things. But you tend to find that engineering involves a lot of human interaction, team work and the softer skills that people don’t usually associate with engineers.
What I love most about what I do is that much of my time involves playing around with gadgets and being given the freedom to innovate and develop in a space that’s extremely fun and interesting, and at the same time has incredible benefits for people who really need these services. To me engineering means trying to make the world a better place.
Daniela Paredes, 26
Place of work: Gravity Sketch, London
Job title: Co-founder
Job description: Creating experiences that seamlessly and interestingly marry the physical and digital world
To me, engineering means magic. It means being able to think about something and make it happen. My company Gravity Sketch started as a school project. We just wanted to do something as crazy as possible, to push the boundaries of everything we knew. It was a real collaboration. We looked deeply into different concepts, talked and talked, created walls of post-it notes, and came up with millions of ideas. We don’t really know who came up with the idea in the end because we all came up with it.
We wanted to allow people to create in a much more intuitive way, and so we decided to build a tool that would focus more on special intelligence and not too much on logic and mathematics. By having a virtual reality or an augmented reality environment, you’re suddenly creating in space, so you don’t need to understand switching between 2D and 3D. It’s just there, like a real object.
Now we’re reaching a point where you could be sketching or designing something such as a car within a virtual environment in London, while somebody else in China could be creating the same car with you.
What I love most about my job is seeing what people create with the tool that I’ve made. People are creating cars in real car companies. People are creating characters in real game companies and film companies and it’s all because Gravity Sketch was born here.
Engineering and creativity are the same thing. Engineering is solving problems, and to solve problems, to be able to find different answers, you need to be creative. I would describe engineering as being able to have a tool set that allows you to create anything you want. You can change the world. You can change how people do things in their everyday lives.
Pavlina Akritas, 31
Place of work: Arup, London
Job title: Senior lighting designer
Job description: Works alongside architects to ensure that their visions can be fulfilled and that the spaces they create are enhanced by light.
I was always very curious about the world around me. I was one of those kids who sits at the front of the classroom, puts up her hand and asks all the questions. I think when you’re young and you hear the word engineering, it can be quite scary. It sounds highly technical but engineering is great because there are so many different fields. You can do something you never expected to do. There’s something for everyone. You can start with something technical and end up doing fashion shows.
I decided to become a lighting designer because it gave me the opportunity to combine my two passions; science and art. Fashion gives you an opportunity to express yourselves in different ways. I use fashion to show my confidence. The fashion designer has a certain idea, but as engineers, we make it real.
What I most love about my job is the variety. Every project is different, every day is different and that’s exciting.
I think when I was 16, I had an idea that engineering was a very masculine profession, but it’s not really. I think it’s important for young people to understand that it’s not just pipes and air conditioning units. There’s a lot more you can do.