Careers in engineering: A responsible course of action

Engineering firms are taking steps to improve their record on social and environmental issues
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The Independent Online

For most people, finding a career with a conscience is fairly straightforward. For would-be engineers, it can be rather more tricky. Employers in this sector have had some of the poorest records when it comes to energy, the environment and human rights.

But, says the Engineering Employers Association (EEA), in the last decade corporate social responsibility (CSR) has been creeping up their agenda, with many companies now taking very seriously issues such as climate change, cleaner technology, sustainable development, business ethics and benefiting the local community.

Even some oil companies - among the most controversial of all businesses - are taking action. ExxonMobil says it is increasingly prioritising issues ranging from environmental responsibility to citizenship, and its latest Corporate Citizenship Report provides some impressive examples. "It's a constant challenge, but we're working hard," says Denise Fennell, community relations manager. "Probably our biggest challenge is finding the new technology which will meet tomorrow's needs in terms of the world's demands around energy."

It's not just about being altruistic or gaining good publicity, according to BP. The company claims that CSR makes good business sense in terms of long-term shareholder value and because governments in developing nations look for social commitment from extractive industries.

Gideon Burrows, editor of The Ethical Careers Guide, suggests that ethically minded people interested in a career in engineering should research beyond the glossy CSR brochures of the companies they're interested in working for. "Find out what the company means by CSR, then find out where the department is located," he says. "If it's near the chief executive's office, there is clearly a commitment from the top."

Don't be sucked in by a long list of great things a company is doing if its overall record remains bad, he adds. One way to discover if the bigger picture is positive is by finding out if a firm's CSR is externally audited, he says. "Companies have their accounts audited, so why not assess CSR from an outside point of view?" says Burrows.

You should also check if the company features on lists such as www.FTSE4Good.com and the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. The ethics committees are quick to kick companies off their recommended lists if they don't continue to meet their high standards.

Rolls Royce not only features in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, but it has also won various CSR awards and is in the top 10 of the Business in the Community CSR index. Colin Beesley, head of environmental strategy, says the company is setting itself stringent targets around the impact of its operations, factories and products on the environment and is, in some areas, decades ahead of regulations. "For example, In 1998, we set ourselves a goal to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from our operations by 10 per cent. We actually wound up achieving 22 per cent. If the whole of society was reducing emissions at that rate, there wouldn't be a climate change problem," he says.

The company's CSR record is externally audited by Deloitte. "It's been a real challenge working with what is essentially an accountancy company to achieve this, but we've been able to convince them because we see it as so important," says Mr Beesley.

Gerry Toye, human resources director for Corus Engineering Steels, a subsidiary of Corus based in Rotherham, says, "Communication is a key part of making it work. It's important that all employees know what we are trying to achieve. This applies on a national level with things like recycling, emissions control and only trading with suppliers that have fair trade policies, and also at a local level where businesses within Corus support community-based activities."

Recent community-based efforts to develop facilities at a school for autistic children, helping to repair local footpaths and working with local children to improve literacy skills. "We're also keen to be a good neighbour," says Mr Toye. "So we focus on things like how to isolate noise and decrease emissions, as well as ensuring the water going back into the river is cleaner than when we took it out."

It may not be long before all engineering companies are not only expected to commit to CSR, but legally bound to. Steve Coventry, European officer at EEA, explains, "There is a debate going on at European level in the EU about how CSR should be taken forward. At its simplest, its about whether CSR should be mandatory or voluntary."

The EEA believes the legislation route would be counter-productive. "First and foremost, you run the risk that companies don't see it as something they do for positive reasons, but as a burden. We also think there's a problem in that CSR is hard to define precisely because there are so many different interpretations," he says.

Mr Coventry reminds people not to forget what smaller companies are doing around CSR. "It's easy to see examples with bigger companies because they have massive budgets they can throw at it, and they make a lot of noise about it. But there are many examples of smaller companies doing great things in their local community. Many don't even label it CSR; so my advice would be for potential recruits to look beyond the obvious."

Stuart Parkinson, director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, agrees. "Sometimes CSR is nothing more than spin," he says. "When it does have commitment behind it, however, CSR can make a real difference."

The wonderful thing about a career in engineering, he says, is that engineers hold the power to genuinely bring about positive change in society, particularly around areas such as energy efficiency.

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