Engineers crop up in the most unlikely places

Amy McLellan reports on a profession in which variety really is the spice of life

The trial of Major Charles Ingram, his wife and a college lecturer for attempting to cheat their way to the top prize in the quiz show Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? gripped the nation in the spring of 2003. A key player in this legal drama was David Howard, a professor of electrical engineering at York University, who was asked to use his acoustic engineering skills to decipher the audience coughs that the prosecution said helped guide the Major to the right answers.

It's not the first time that Professor Howard, who specialises in the human voice and is himself a deputy tenor in the choir at York Minster, has undertaken some offbeat engineering investigations. He has analysed the singing talents of Premiership football club fans - a difficult job for a music lover - for a different kind of title race that was not dominated by Chelsea (they came a lowly eleventh). Tuneful Southampton, Manchester United and Derby County came out on top, while Bolton Wanderers' fans were found to be the most off-key. Howard's experiences reveal the breadth of work awaiting the graduate engineer. Yet it is a profession that struggles to maintain numbers - and this is partly down to an image problem.

"For too many people, the word engineer is associated with the man in the white van that comes round to fix the heating," says Howard. " But that's actually the role of a technician. Engineering is about ingenuity, problem-solving and the application of science for the benefit of human kind."

The message still isn't getting through to school-leavers making their UCAS applications. The number of students doing both maths and physics at A-level, a requirement of most engineering degree courses, are down, shrinking the pool of potential candidates. There's also an impression that engineering is a "difficult" subject, involving lots of timetabled hours and hard work.

It doesn't help that the Masters of Engineering qualification (MEng), necessary to become chartered and to compete at the highest levels, is a four-year programme, with all the additional financial implications. Some courses are bucking the trend. Professor Howard's MEng course in electrical engineering with music technology systems has proved popular, accounting for 30 to 40 per cent of the electrical engineering intake at York. Applicants must have good A-levels in maths and physics plus a grade 7 or equivalent on a musical instrument.

"We have had people taking a year out to get their music up to scratch so they can get on this course," says Howard. "By keeping art alive with the science, we find we produce better and more creative engineers and they are in high demand with employers."

Other branches of engineering are also starting to recover numbers. The Institute of Chemical Engineering (ICE) runs an initiative to attract more young people to the profession - and with some success.

"There has been a year-on-year increase in intake since 2002 and applications have gone up 36 per cent in the last three years," says Lucy Taylor of the campaign, set up by ICE. "Chemical engineering provides the kind of opportunities that young people say they want: managerial responsibility, working in a team, good pay and travel opportunities."

However, many bright engineering graduates are lured away from the profession by high salaries in finance and consultancy. Starting salaries for engineers range from around £19,000 to upwards of £25,000, sums that are far from meagre but can't compete with those of the City.

But speak to an engineer and there's a real enthusiasm for the job - even after a couple of decades of working in the industry - that few bankers can match. The variety of an engineering career keeps it fresh, plus the satisfaction of actually producing something tangible, be it a bridge, sports car, hearing aid, brain scanner, or solar panels.

Engineers work with some of the biggest and best organisations in the world, including the British armed forces, ICI, Rolls Royce, Airbus, GCHQ and Siemens. Charities and NGOs are also crying out for skilled engineers to help in regions struck by disaster. Engineers are often the first on the scene following disasters like the recent Asian earthquake and often the last leave, as they use their skills to rebuild devastated communities long after the TV crews have gone home. Engineering is truly a career for life.

Adrian Mooney: 'I've travelled to Germany, the US, Sweden and Italy'

Adrian, 28, studied chemical engineering at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He now works as a design engineer and project manager at global glass manufacturer Pilkington.

Ever since I can remember, I was interested in science and how things work. I picked chemical engineering because I wanted to have a practical bent, being out on site rather than in an office all the time. Chemical engineering is very practical. The technologies involved are also quite complex and very interesting.

I found my job through the university careers service and I've now been at Pilkington for six years. I've just become a chartered chemical engineer and the company helped me through that process. You are appointed a mentor and get various training packages to make sure you meet the objectives of the relevant body.

It's a very satisfying job because I'm involved in all stages of the process, from doing the feasibility study, to the design, to the installation and then the commissioning, testing and proving of the project. I also work with engineers from lots of different disciplines, so I'm working with mechanical and electrical engineers and also with finance and marketing, so you really are at the heart of the process.

Pilkington makes glass for the building and automotive industries and I'm in the department that is responsible worldwide for installing the equipment that makes the glass. I've travelled to Germany, the US, Sweden and Italy and it's a great experience to work with engineers from different countries and learn their methods.

Averil McMahon: 'We're developing a new engine for tractors and construction vehicles'

Averil, 25, studied mechanical engineering at University College in Dublin. She now works for Perkins Engineering in Peterborough, part of the Caterpillar Group.

I really liked maths, physics and chemistry at school but it wasn't until one of my career guidance counsellors suggested engineering that I thought about it as a career. She also suggested I did a Women In Engineering course, which was great fun. There aren't many women in engineering. On my course there were nine of us out of about 70, and I was told that was a really high proportion compared to a lot of places.

Women are also in the minority here - there are two female engineers in a department of about 70 - but I've never found it to be an issue. There are female engineers here who have done really well in managerial roles. There's nothing to hold you back as a woman and the only thing you miss are people to have chats with about certain things - they're not too impressed when I want to talk shoes and handbags!

I picked the job at Perkins because it was more technical and hands-on than some of the other job offers. I've been here for two years now and I'm on a graduate scheme to get chartered with the Institute of Mechanical Engineering. This means you get to work in different departments and see the different types of engineering needed to make an engine. I've worked with the noise vibration and harshness team, the design team and the small engines group. I'm now with the performance team. We're developing a new engine for tractors and construction vehicles and trying to get the best power out of the engine while meeting all the latest emissions requirements. We run an engine on a test bed for 24 hours, prepare tests for the day, analyse the results and speak to the test technicians. It's a nice mix; I'm not sitting at a computer all day.

It's a job I would definitely recommend. I very rarely get my hands dirty!

Adam James: 'There's no such as thing as a typical day. You never get bored'

Adam, a Sheffield University graduate, 26, specialised in chemical engineering and is now a shift team leader at British Sugar

Engineering appealed to me because I've always enjoyed problem solving and I've got an inquisitive nature. In engineering you're always trying to get around problems and come up with some new solution, or change something for the better.

I also like doing something practical, which was a problem when I graduated because I got a job with a contractor in London and found myself deskbound. I was there for a year until I got this job with British Sugar - and a year can seem like a long time when you're just sitting at a desk for eight hours a day.

There's no such thing as a typical day because there's so much variety. You never get bored. I work shifts, so on a morning shift I start at 6am and speak to the night shift leader and look at any problems in the factory, how it can go faster and resolve any issues. We collect a huge amount of data, which we analyse and make sure everything is running efficiently. I have a team of 16 people working for me and I need to make sure the labour is in the right place at the right time.

When the shift finishes at 2pm, we have time to work on different improvement projects. I'm doing a project to improve a vacuum pump and I also look after the chemicals for the factory and do projects to improve our usage of the chemicals. I really enjoy these projects because it gives you a chance to go into some real depth, which you don't really get time to do.