Engineers and management in manufacturing and construction
There is a widespread view in the relevant academic literature that the UK's economic performance would be better if the situations of its engineers, engineering and manufacturing were more favourable. In particular the apparent dominance of accountants and financial expertise and the relative lack of influence of engineers and technical and productive expertise in manufacturing companies have been much discussed. As a presumed consequence of this, and despite a shortage of empirical evidence, engineers are apparently marginalised in managerial hierarchies, particularly in the most senior positions, and there is a subordination of technical to financial and other commercial priorities and objectives. The role of engineers in construction, however, has been virtually ignored despite the sector's economic importance and the relatively large numbers of engineers employed in it. The author and his supervisor conducted 25 interviews with representatives of the engineering and other main organizational professions, management institutes, employers' associations and a small number of academic and policy researchers. Their aim was to help identify the main issues which were relevant to UK engineers. From these interviews, and from reviewing the literature about engineers and management, the author decided upon the aims of the research. These were: to examine how engineers in manufacturing and construction feel about their influence and career prospects vis-ä-vis the members of the other professional groups with whom they work; to explore the perceptions of management-level people in industry about the managerial abilities of engineers and their colleagues; to investigate how engineers feel about the trade unions and professional associations which represent many of them; to examine the views of engineers about issues surrounding it engineering education and the importance which employers place on formal engineering qualifications; and to determine how engineers feel about the social place of their profession and about their levels of remuneration. Eighty-two interviews were conducted with engineers and their colleagues in three industrial sectors: mechanical and electrical engineering, chemicals, and construction. In manufacturing the main functional groups seemed to enjoy more constructive relationships than was apparently the case during the 1970s and 1980s. Although they appeared to form an influential group, the author found little evidence to support the notion that accountants dominate manufacturing companies, and they were generally considered both by themselves and by engineers and other colleagues to be performing a support function. Engineers appeared to enjoy the widest range of career opportunities of all the main management level groups, with the possible exception of chemists in chemicals. These opportunities included promotion to the boardroom. However some respondents felt that engineers needed to become rather less involved in the technical aspects of their work to advance their careers. In construction it was found that the main professional groups appeared to operate in varying degrees of mutual opposition. Their roles and influence depended to a large extent on the nature of the product and on the method of contracting chosen by clients. Architects in building and design engineers in civil engineering appeared to have lost their dominant positions in the management of projects. In both cases the main beneficiaries were contracting companies, which are staffed at management level mainly by engineers, and to a smaller extent quantity surveyors. 111 The author found no evidence to support the view that engineers are superior or inferior to other professional groups in terms of their `management' abilities, although the latter are clearly very difficult to measure. Only three of sixty-one engineer respondents were trade union members and most engineers appeared to believe that trade union membership was incompatible with their professional and/or managerial identities. About half of the engineers in the sample were members of professional engineering associations but this varied between sectors, as did the importance attached by respondents and their employers to chartered status. The engineer respondents tended to believe that their profession was poorly organised and ineffectual. Although employers appeared to rely heavily on formal qualifications to distinguish between different grades of technical staff, most respondents felt that engineering degrees needed to more practically oriented. The social standing of engineers and engineering was generally considered to be low. Many engineers believed that the general public neither understood nor appreciated fully what they did. However, engineers in the manufacturing companies in the study were generally satisfied with their levels of remuneration, although most respondents in construction felt that they were underpaid. The thesis concludes by arguing that when taken together with other evidence, particularly the many useful developments in education for management, the results suggest that the prospects for the UK economy might be considered to be improving, and certainly better than they were during the 1970s and 1980s.