This is not an unusual occurrence. Consultants often come to visit, to sell their services in one way, shape or form. This particular one had come to advise us on corporate development. Now, I'm not entirely sure I know what corporate development is, or whether we need it, let alone how much it should cost. But I listened anyway and then he nodded sympathetically as I explained our approach to learning and development. He certainly had good credentials: an engineering degree and 10 years in the construction business. But this is the thing that really got me. His business card described him as (not his real name) Bob Smith, MBA.
Now, I'm sure he put in considerable effort and expenditure to acquire his MBA, but why did he choose to ignore his engineering qualification? Four years of unmitigated hard work, and somehow he's embarrassed about admitting to an MEng? It's a damn good qualification: it demonstrates numeracy, analytical ability, logical thinking, perseverance and a not inconsiderable strength of character – after all, you're working 30 hours a week at university when your friends reading humanities are cruising around with just eight hours of lectures a week.
This seems to be symptomatic of a lack of self-worth among engineers. No other discipline seems to be ashamed at admitting to its post-nominal letterage. The communications director at the Engineering Council has confessed that "engineers do have a tendency to be rather self-effacing" and readily duck into the shadows if attention happens to turn in their direction. And there are a lot of engineers within the construction industry – civil, structural, electrical, ground, fire – all of them apparently suffering the same reluctance to admit to any pride in what they do.
Construction has such a poor image that we only sheepishly divulge what we do for a living
In fact, it seems to be endemic across the industry – construction has such a poor image that we only sheepishly divulge what we do for a living. Even I have been known to describe myself at parties as "in publishing" to avoid the glazed and slightly panicked look that invariably comes over a stranger's face when confronted by the truth. And I've heard a QS describe himself as "an accountant for buildings" – good grief! We're trying to impress people by calling ourselves accountants?
Enough of this. We should be prepared to declaim boldly: "I'm an engineer in the construction business!" It's something to take pride in. Look at our achievements in the past five years and see how we've improved our world. Whatever their architectural merit, the combination of lottery funding, imaginative designs and committed contractors has resulted in world-beating buildings: the Millennium Dome, the Eden Project, the Millennium Bridges in Gateshead and London (yes, yes, but they've sorted out the wobble), and the Glasgow Wing Tower, to name but a few.
By refusing to acknowledge our contribution, we are perpetuating the myth that construction is a dirty, messy business that's a necessary evil within the UK economy. The image is difficult to refute when the popular media is constantly going on about builders from hell and why buildings fall down. There's a terrible temptation to wring our collective hands moaning that nobody really understands us – but the first step is to recognise ourselves that we're doing really good stuff. Then we need to have coherent and sympathetic representation to project into the broader public arena. Mark Whitby and one or two other industry figures are already doing this but we need more – preferably young, articulate, enthusiastic and confident in talking about what they do. It is a challenge we should relish – for personal as well as professional reasons.
Tanya Ross is an associate of Buro Happold in Bath.