What Engineering Doesn’t Need

This rubbish appeared in The Guardian a few days ago:

Thirty years ago, when I was struggling to find work as a chemical engineer, I was used as a case study in a newspaper article about the barriers facing black graduates. Back then we were being told industry was crying out for engineers, so I and many of my black colleagues on similar courses, with good grades, and with similar jobs-market difficulties, couldn’t understand why the industry didn’t seem to want us.

Fast-forward 30 years, and it seems nothing’s changed. This week a report by the Royal Academy of Engineering has revealed that black and minority ethnic graduates are twice as likely to be underemployed two years after finishing their studies than their white counterparts are – and that’s despite attending similar universities and achieving similar grades.

In my experience one is an engineer first and foremost, and one’s ethnicity, nationality, sex, etc. are very much secondary and barely considered at all by one’s peers.  I have worked in engineering teams made up of a bewildering array of nationalities and skin colours, and never once have I heard an engineer being criticised or bad-mouthed by their colleagues for anything other than being a shit engineer (managers will criticise good engineers for not being on-message and sufficiently subservient, but that’s a separate issue and one that is equally colourblind).

I have spent the past three years in an engineering team made up of both men and women from the UK, France, Jamaica, Russia, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Syria, and Venezuela, and we cover every hue on the spectrum of possible skin colours (I slot firmly into the category of “pasty white”).  When a new project arises I find myself paired off with another team member, and this can be anyone.  The first thought that comes to mind when I learn with whom I will be working is how experienced they are on this type of study and how good they are technically and professionally.  At no point – and I am being 100% truthful here – do I care what nationality, skin colour, or sex they are.  All I’m interested in is their technical ability, and I am sure this goes for almost every other engineer I have worked with.  If they can deliver on the technical stuff, nobody cares if you’re black, white, or bright purple with green spots.  Things may have been different 30 years ago, but this is how they are now.  Hence I am skeptical.

In fact, it found that being in an ethnic minority was a bigger obstacle to employment than any other factor they considered – including degree classification, attending a less prestigious university, or gender.

The report is here, and looks to me as though somebody set out to prove that engineers’ ethnicity was keeping them unemployed and did just that.  Anyone who thinks there is a lack of ethnic Chinese or Indians in engineering teams across all disciplines is likely on good terms with a guide dog, but of course the report doesn’t go into such detail: instead it lumps everyone together as Black or Minority Ethnic (BME) and then later, in trying to control for other factors, splits that out into Black and Asian (presumably throwing Indians, Chinese, and Indonesians into the same pot).

Despite my experiences, this came as a shock. I actually thought things were getting better.

Well, if your experiences are telling you one thing but a Diversity Report from an industry body says different, who are you to believe?

When I graduated, in 1987, the world was quite a different place.

Yes, it was.

Diversity had not entered the mainstream conversation.

Yes, those were the days when we weren’t being ordered to take somebody’s skin colour into account when doing engineering work.

It was clear there was inequality, but no one seemed to care. I saw many opportunities pass by that I felt I was more than qualified for.

Yes, this is what happens in an industry where “experience” is equated with “years on the job” and weak managers and HR departments insist on hiring people with 15-20 years experience for jobs an intern could do.  When I moved to Sakhalin it was for a job that I had applied for online on one of the main oil and gas career websites.  It was the one solitary job I was offered in well over a hundred applications, and this was in the middle of the biggest boom the industry had ever seen and they were hiring people straight out of the military in management and supervisory positions.  Life is extremely difficult for young engineers just starting out, even if you’re an Anglo-Saxon white male such as me. See my Recruitment category for my earlier rants about this.

I remember one excruciating meeting at which my interviewer, despite knowing my qualifications and experience before inviting me along, barely asked me a question.

Welcome to engineering recruitment.

He knew my gender in advance; he wouldn’t have known my race. Clearly, he felt he was wasting his time; I wish he hadn’t wasted mine.

Sorry, how do you know he was uninterested in you because of your race?  I think it far more likely the position you were applying for had already been earmarked for an internal candidate but HR policies insist the post is advertised externally, and the poor sap that had to interview the applicants knew this.  Or maybe the guy was just useless at interviewing: God knows, I’ve sat through enough interviews where I wasn’t asked a single relevant question, but I don’t think it was anything to do with me personally.

I eventually became a chemical industry consultant, and thankfully such incidents are now rare.

One would have thought becoming a successful independent consultant was impossible in an industry that doesn’t like to recruit black people.  The fact she’s managed to become one suggests the problem lies more with crap management and recruitment processes than racial prejudice, doesn’t it?

But talking to younger engineers, I learn that a sense of unconscious bias appears to persist.

A sense of unconscious bias appears to persist.  This is somebody who supposedly has mastered the hard sciences.

The main problem is that engineering still lags behind other traditional professions, such as law and medicine, which over the years have introduced significant and meaningful initiatives to raise the level of diversity.

No, we never lagged behind.  Law and medicine are closed-shops, and it is extremely difficult for a lawyer or doctor to turn up in another country and open a practice.  By contrast, engineering is and open industry based on universal principles which transcend international boundaries and cultures such that a Brazilian, Japanese, American, and Russian engineer can all work together in the same team and know what each other is on about: they all sat pretty much the same exams at university.  Diversity in engineering comes naturally, it doesn’t need to be forced on people.

Inequality in these professions has regularly been flagged up in the media, and they have been heavily criticised over arcane practices.

Such as being self-regulating closed shops that are not subject to the same commercial pressures as other industries?

Engineering has not been exposed to the same level of scrutiny. Most have heard the news stories of black lawyers struggling to get into the bar, but engineering stories are rarer.

That’s because there is no equivalent of the bar in Engineering.  True, engineers sometimes get chartered through a professional body but it is not a requirement to do so as I myself can attest.

Most people are unaware of what professional engineers even do (no, we’re not mechanics). Although engineering touches every part of our lives, the profession operates quietly, out of the public eye.

Yes, and for that we are grateful as it has spared us the bullshit that is foisted on the more prominent industries by poisonous identity politics and social justice activism.  At least until now. We just want to be engineers and left alone.

One recent black engineering graduate told me that during the interview process he felt there was an underlying sense on the selection panel of “Will he fit in here?” –

Prospective employees are judged on whether they’d fit into the organisation doing the hiring?  How odd.

and that, after many rejections, keeping motivated was hard.

Come back to me when you’ve sent off a hundred plus applications and had three acknowledgements, two of which said “no thanks” and the remaining one said “How do you fancy Sakhalin Island?”

Even when black graduates do get their foot in the front door, their career progression can be slow.

My impression as a young engineer in the UK was that I was waiting for those above me to die before I could move up the ladder.  That’s why I emigrated.

A chartered civil engineer who’s worked on some high-profile construction projects tells me that black engineers tend not to be offered the type of work that could further their careers; there are limited opportunities to lead projects and manage teams to develop the skills and experience needed for senior roles.

That I can believe: promotions are handed out based on how much you suck up to the management, and it is probably more difficult for a black guy to do this than his white counterpart in a company full of white people.  The Oilfield Expat put up a good post some time back about why this was also a problem for women in engineering.  This has less to do with discrimination than appalling management.

There has been a huge push in recent years to take on sexism in the industry and promote science, technology, engineering and maths careers for women. But ethnicity has never been part of any discussion.

That’s probably because anyone who’s worked in an international engineering environment would see it’s like the United Colors of Benetton.

In my years working in the European chemical industry, and having attended countless meetings, I can’t recall seeing another person of colour.

Bullshit.  No Indians, Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Malays, Nigerians, or Europeans who were anything other than white?  Not one?  Sorry, bullshit.

The Royal Academy of Engineering now runs a programme tasked with increasing diversity and inclusion across professional engineering institutions. This offers some hope, as there are many such organisations (some of which are relatively small) covering different engineering specialities, and I doubt whether the issue of diversity is high on the agenda for any of them. So the academy could help create a platform for change.

However, these initiatives will count for little if they don’t filter down to the engineering companies themselves. Their practices need to change regarding how they recruit graduates, and how they develop and support black and minority ethnic engineers once employed.

If the experience of other industries and diversity agendas is any guide, this will mean quotas.  The irony in all of this is that quotas for ethnic minorities already exist in much of the engineering world in the form of local content legislation.  If the author wants to see an office full of black engineers and very few whites, then she can look at Nigeria for an example.  When I worked there my company had an engineering department which consisted of ten Nigerians and two Scotsmen and was managed by a pasty white Brit who happened to be me.  Did I or anyone else give two hoots what colour the engineers were?  No.  Did I care what sort of technical work they were producing?  Damned right I did.  Nobody – including the Nigerians in my team – wanted their suitability as an engineer to be based on their skin colour, they wanted it to be based on their professional qualifications, experience, and competence.  And the biggest gripe among Nigerian engineers was that this was often not the case in their country, where personal connections and nepotism play far too great a role.

The last thing the modern engineering world needs is identity politics being rammed down the throats of its employees in an effort to solve problems that either don’t exist or are the result of widespread crap management and recruiting practices.

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22 thoughts on “What Engineering Doesn’t Need

  1. Years ago, I too was struggling to find work as an engineer.

    Back then we were being told industry was crying out for engineers, so I and many of my colleagues on similar courses, with good grades, and with similar jobs-market difficulties, couldn’t understand why the industry didn’t seem to want us.

    Turns out I too was sold a pup too about the desperate need for graduate engineers. Nothing to do with race.

    I guess some folks would find racism in a tube of toothpaste.

  2. Too many toos there, I think. Could’ve managed without the last one.

    “Turns out I too was sold a pup about the desperate need for graduate engineers. Nothing to do with race.”

    Much better.

    (my written grammar is terrible when highly caffeinated)

  3. Within rounding error, the truth content of the assertions of those playing the race card is zero.

  4. I’m not an engineer, but I used to be an academic, in which the job competition is similarly intense. You can always find work if your heart is set on science, but most academics are narcissists at heart, logical to some extent, and want a free run to tenure and ultimately a chair in a major western city. People who are stupid enough (like I was) won’t even apply for the low-prestige safe shot at teaching first-year biochemistry at a mid-western liberal arts school (which has different advantages, I am reliably informed).

    I digress. The world is big enough that there will always be some exceptionally unlucky people at the margins, and big (and dare I say, diverse,) enough, that some of those will not be white males. And not prepared to serve their time and find a narrow enough field in which they can become a big, or even the biggest, fish, in a short enough amount of time.

    The only thing society owes these people is a bit of education – that you won’t ever end up doing what you set out to do, but it can still be a heap of fun anyway.

  5. To get a great job in academia (probably applies to most other fields too):

    1. Be exceptionally talented. Grossly exceptionally talented. The most unbelievably capable person most people will ever meet.
    2. Get that recognised early by lots of people, most of them less talented than you, and know they are less talented, but will still take pride in pushing and coaching you to something well beyond whatever they will ever achieve, and be happy to dine out on your success everafter.
    3: Be exceptionally lucky. Repeatedly.

  6. Turns out I too was sold a pup about the desperate need for graduate engineers. Nothing to do with race.

    Oh yeah, we all got given that guff. Shit, I remember being rejected from those hundred applications at the same time the oil industry was saying they couldn’t find enough engineers and young people were choosing to do something else.

  7. To get a great job in academia (probably applies to most other fields too):

    That’s our dearieme you’re talking about!

  8. I’m not an engineer, but I used to be an academic, in which the job competition is similarly intense.

    Oh hell, engineering isn’t competitive. They just have no idea how to recruit.

  9. I am an engineer and have worked in many parts of the world with other engineers and am continually involved in the hiring and firing of them. I agree with Tim we select based on merit and in my organisation its based on an assessment of their productive output in terms or generating deliverables and meeting deadlines with minimum supervision and support.

    Being engineers we find it best to standardize the selection process by grouping engineer types in terms of assessed output factor. Our index is set at a normal market right type of engineer and they are given an output factor of 1.0, other less productive types are rated against their specific capability when compared to an optimum market engineer eg if they are half as good then they would get a ½ rating, indicating that you would need two of them to match a right type, the smaller the rating the less productive and the more support they require. This assists when justifying the massive salary disparity between engineer types.

    Our guideline profile for recruitment selection is as follows:

    1 Right Type

    Normally white, Anglo Saxon (excluding home counties), Celtic, Colonials fit looking and confident.

    0.8 White Trash

    Normally white, Europeans, Eastern Europeans, graduates from the home counties, Yanks and Taffies*.

    0.75 Asian

    Normally Asian looking, must have got over all of that bowing to each other shit.

    0.5 Arab

    Normally from the gulf zone, be careful as they are hierarchically divisive and like to boss other races around, shit stirrers.

    0.1-0.2 African

    Black, educated, no good, untrustworthy, unreliable and corrupt slackers.

    *A Lie Detector Test to be carried out on all Taffs pre-start.

  10. Come back to me when you’ve sent off a hundred plus applications and had three acknowledgements, two of which said “no thanks” and the remaining one said “How do you fancy Sakhalin Island?”

    Yes, I can imagine. End of the earth as we know it but would still like to see it, see if it’s the same as the rest of Russia.

  11. The first secret is to pick the right year to be born. Then when you graduate you’re spoilt for choice with job offers, and you get on to the ladder right away. So: birth in late 40s good, mid 50s awful, etc, etc.

    The next secret is to find some specialism that you happen to be equipped to be bloody good at, where demand for your labour is about to rocket, and where there is little competition.

    The third secret is to accept that the first two secrets teach that much depends on luck.

  12. 1. Intelligent, highly skilled people are rare and expensive.
    2. If there were more of them they would be cheaper.
    3. “There’s a shortage of engineers!”

  13. My experience (geology) was the laydeez (minority) were all top blokes and sex never entered the equation (except perhaps after dark). All laydeez (no exceptions) were entirely professional and expected to be met at that level.

    The Women’s Lubrication Movement are fighting a battle that’s already been won.

  14. Yes, my experience closely resembles Tim’s. Some interviews felt like one was the filling to ensure the company had interviewed outside or sufficiently.

    When I interviewed to fill positions I always used the: Can do? Will do? Fit? criteria to (try to) determine if the person has the skills, motivation and yes, will he/she fit into the team.

  15. “A chartered civil engineer who’s worked on some high-profile construction projects tells me that black engineers tend not to be offered the type of work that could further their careers; there are limited opportunities to lead projects and manage teams to develop the skills and experience needed for senior roles.”

    This one gave me a chuckle. You don’t go to the effort of being a chartered civil engineer to then change career and become a project manager. One of the great poisons in the engineering industry is the extreme credentials often required for non-engineering roles, pushing engineers into management positions for which they are completely unequipped.

  16. “Oh yeah, we all got given that guff. Shit, I remember being rejected from those hundred applications at the same time the oil industry was saying they couldn’t find enough engineers and young people were choosing to do something else.”

    I was working on a BP project, through a contractor, BP would never lower themselves to hire me, and they had direct hired a guy with an Oxford phd in physics and were in the process of retraining him to be an electrical engineer. That seemed to require him to work on the new degree from scratch, for years.

    The mind-boggling stupidity of that has always stuck with me. I know dozens of very good electrical engineers they could have hired and had functional in a few weeks, but of course none of them had degrees from Oxford!

  17. End of the earth as we know it but would still like to see it, see if it’s the same as the rest of Russia.

    It was much the same, at least that was the case 2006-2010. It lagged behind Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and other cities in terms of development, but it was very Russian. The nature was awesome, though. See my photo collection here.

  18. The next secret is to find some specialism that you happen to be equipped to be bloody good at, where demand for your labour is about to rocket, and where there is little competition.

    Yeah, I was lucky with the oil industry boom. I’m not a good engineer, but it appeared I made up for that by being willing to go and live practically anywhere.

  19. One of the great poisons in the engineering industry is the extreme credentials often required for non-engineering roles, pushing engineers into management positions for which they are completely unequipped.

    Absolutely. Far too often the best engineer is made a manager and you get a crap manager and lose a good engineer at the same time. I’m a rubbish engineer, but I am good at management (meaning: coordinating, gathering and disseminating information, communicating, reporting, setting priorities, commercial and contractual stuff, etc.). You’d really not want me doing any technical stuff, but some people still insist I ought to do it, which is worrying.

  20. The mind-boggling stupidity of that has always stuck with me. I know dozens of very good electrical engineers they could have hired and had functional in a few weeks, but of course none of them had degrees from Oxford!

    Ah yes, like the investment banks that pay high salaries so they insist they should recruit only the absolute brightest from Oxbridge who are thoroughly unsuited to the type of work required from a graduate in Mergers & Acquisitions.

    Oil companies insist on recruiting only the super alpha males and females who captained their county hockey team or rowed the Atlantic in their 6th form, and then stick the whole lot in a team together and wonder why stuff doesn’t get done.

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