Forward planning: a closer look at the role of the design engineer

act: engineers were found to be the happiest professionals in the UK in the 2005 City & Guilds Happiness Index. If engineers are the happiest professionals in the UK, why do three in four people know very little about what they do?

Most 16- to 18-year-olds considering their career options are unlikely to have come across the work of a design engineer. However, the fact is that engineering affects every aspect of our daily lives and is behind every product you have ever used, from a pencil to an aeroplane.

Professional engineers help turn ideas into reality and an engineering career attracts those interested in working creatively, but with a strong intellectual, technical and practical bent. An engineer is not, as many people seem to believe, the person who comes around to fix your washing machine!

Perhaps one of the reasons for this confusion is the sheer variety and wide-ranging nature of engineering design work. There are, would you believe, no less than 36 engineering institutions regulating professional standards, covering areas including acoustic, aeronautical, chemical, medical, electrical, environmental, mining, marine, military, mechanical, nuclear, railway, civil and structural engineering.

You will struggle to find many other professions where you might spend time in an office, lab or factory and yet also get the chance to go outdoors, dealing with the cut and thrust of projects from day to day. You also get to deal with an amazing variety of people. For example, a structural engineer might encounter a high-powered architect, novice client and experienced contractor all in the course of one day.

To turn design ideas into reality, an engineer has to be able to investigate materials and solutions, sketch ideas, work well in interdisciplinary teams, write letters and reports (making complex issues simple), negotiate contracts and fees, organise and plan projects, prepare calculations and much more; variety is one of the joys of the job. There is something for people of all backgrounds and the good news is that is no longer a male preserve: 18 per cent of engineering graduates are women, a number which has doubled in the last decade and is rising quickly.

The power of engineering to improve things and change things is enormous, and it is incredibly satisfying to be involved with projects that can have such far-reaching effects. For example, decisions made by engineers can affect the carbon footprint of the thousands and millions of people who use the products that they design.

A prospective design engineer may consider the profession because they enjoy drawing and planning or finding out how things are made. The real eureka moment comes when your first project becomes reality and starts helping people. The feeling of pride and ownership lasts for years.

If you are interested in mathematics, science and art you will find a satisfying career in engineering design. It covers a huge range of things, from designing buildings, bridges, cars and aeroplanes to making sure that water is safe to drink, soft drink bottles don't explode and doctors can do life-saving operations. You can design green energy solutions such as solar power or you can design better tents to help people survive disasters. You can work on rockets or you can be a sculptor. You can do anything you want – all you've got to do is use your imagination.

Martyn Long and Fiona Cobb are structural engineers at Price & Myers. They are also part of the Stemnet's Science and Engineering Ambassadors programme



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