The Millennium Bridge should have been British engineering's finest hour. Instead, it has become a metaphor for a profession in crisis.
It Is drinking-up time at the Founders Arms, a riverside pub just a stone's throw from the Millennium Bridge. A group of young structural engineers, their tongues loosened by alcohol, are in the middle of a fierce argument.

"Why doesn't anybody understand what we do?" demands one.

"It's the media's fault," says another. "They're only interested when things go wrong."

"No, it's our fault," says a third, to hoots of derision. "We don't explain ourselves properly."

The engineers all work for Arup; earlier that evening, without fanfare, the firm had marched 2000 people across the bridge to test its solution to the infamous wobble. It had taken 18 months to develop and install the remedial dampers, and Arup's top brains were confident that they would do the job. All the same, the relief was palpable when 4000 feet failed to produce more than a barely perceptible quiver.

It was a cause for celebration, a cathartic moment for a firm that has been pilloried for presiding over one of the greatest engineering cock-ups of all time, ridiculed for the fumbling way it explained the technical issues and branded in the popular imagination as "the wobbly bridge engineer".

Yet the argument in the Founders reveals a problem that goes beyond Arup: British engineering is undergoing an identity crisis. According to some of the most senior figures in the profession, the discipline is misunderstood, lacking in confidence and let down by an outmoded education system.

"The bridge is indicative of a wider problem – that engineering is not particularly respected," says Tony Fitzpatrick later. He was project director for the Millennium Bridge and is now chairman of Arup USA. "When I go to Italy, I'm 'signor ingeniere'. I'm extremely well regarded; I'm up there with the physician. Over here, people think I'm the guy that's come to fix the radiator.

"In many respects that is the fault of engineers," he adds. "It's a totally numerate profession; there are no language skills. We can't communicate. That's the fault of education."

The gloom enveloping the profession is curious, given that the reputation of British structural engineers has never been higher. Firms like Arup, Buro Happold and Anthony Hunt & Associates are world leaders in innovation and technical daring.

Engineering is a totally numerate profession. We can’t communicate

Tony Fitzpatrick, chairman, Arup USA

British structural engineers owe their global prominence to the high-tech architecture of the 1980s. Designers such as Richard Rogers and Nicholas Grimshaw pushed the profession to its limits with buildings that celebrated structural virtuosity in a way that had not been seen since the Victorian age.

In the 19th century, engineers were the heroes. It was an age bestridden by the colossus of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, whose railway stations were industrial cathedrals and whose bridges were scientific marvels. Many contemporary practitioners view that era with nostalgia. "If you look at the pioneers like Brunel, they were prepared to have a go and see what happened," says Chris Wise, the former Arup director who designed the Millennium Bridge. "Modern engineers have lost the knack of it."

Maverick talents such as Wise believe engineers have developed an inferiority complex, ceding the limelight to the architect, who soak up the glory for cutting-edge engineering projects such as the Millennium Bridge and the London Eye.

"There's a reluctance among engineers to say 'We did this'," says Wise. "They're afraid of treading on the toes of people they rely on for work. It's a lack of confidence."

This problem manifested itself spectacularly in the summer of 2000, when the Millennium Bridge – a work of pure engineering presented as a work of art – wobbled on its opening day.

Co-designer Lord Foster, until then the figurehead of the project, publicly declared that the wobble was not his problem, but one for the engineers.

That statement, though ungracious, was factually correct. But as Arup immediately set about solving the problem, it was unable to furnish anyone with Foster's gravitas or charisma to explain to an intrigued public what was going on.

Wise believes the technical solution Arup devised is "absolutely brilliant" and is something British engineering should be proud of. But he is dismayed at the low-key way his former employer has presented its triumph.

"Arup hasn't been inspirational enough in the message it's putting across," he says. "There's a lack of leadership in terms of inspiration. It forgot to mention that it was exciting. Instead, it's reinforcing the perception of the engineer as boffin. It's a shame for Arup, it's a shame for the bridge and it's a shame for the engineering profession as a whole."

Arup hasn’t been inspirational enough in the message it is putting across. It has forgotten to mention that engineering is exciting

Chris Wise, former Arup director

Mark Whitby, director at structural engineer Whitby Bird & Partners and president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, agrees: "Arup was happy to let Foster take the glory." However, Whitby is careful to point out that the problem is not confined to Arup. "We don't like heroes in engineering any more. If Tony [Fitzpatrick] or Chris [Wise] had stood up and said 'I was the engineer of the bridge' they would have been pilloried by their colleagues."

Whitby blames the innate conservatism of the engineering establishment, which views charismatic individuals as outsiders. Recognition, in the form of nominations for the New Year's Honours List, goes to "anonymous chairmen" of large firms rather than outstanding practitioners. "Every year an architect gets knighted. But name me one knighted engineer – where are they?"

This culture of caution harks back to the era when engineers were happy to be back-room technicians, slaving over their slide rules to make architects' designs stand up. Today, the number-crunching is done by computer, a change that theoretically gives engineers far greater room to be creative and to consider the wider social implications of what they can achieve in their careers.

Yet engineering courses still tend to adopt the anorak approach; the discipline is taught as a series of abstract technical disciplines. As a result, it is viewed as an unattractive study option and university applications are falling alarmingly – down 5% last year alone.

And the students that do sign up are not the kind the profession needs, Whitby says. "There's a tendency for schools to attract people who are solely numerate – who are poor communicators. They're bright people but you can imagine they stand out like sore thumbs compared with other, more outgoing groups at university."

Many leading practitioners hated their studies. "I didn't really enjoy the course; I didn't find it stimulating," says Jane Wernick, director at Jane Wernick Associates. "We weren't really taught design. You work on your own at abstract problems and it's not like the real world at all." Chris Wise agrees. "I was horrified – my course was so crap. I was a very bad student."

Instead, Whitby argues for a radical overhaul of the education system. "We're trying to play up the social conscience and say engineers can do something for society. Issues such as how can we increase the sustainability of our cities? How can we reduce the number of deaths on our roads? How can we reduce pollution?"

There are signs that the universities have taken the hint. "We've got to persuade young people that an engineering degree can lead to an interesting life," says Professor David Nethercot, head of Imperial College's department of civil and environmental engineering. Imperial, along with a number of other universities, are introducing design to the curriculum and encouraging students to work in project teams in an attempt to make their courses more desirable and relevant.

Arup’s painful journey from iconic engineer to global brand

“It’s totally unconnected to the bridge,” insists Mike Hogan of his appointment as Arup’s new spin doctor. Hogan, whose official title is head of corporate communications, has a brief to review the Arup brand and explain where the firm is going – both to the public and the company’s 6500 employees in 32 countries. There is a lot of explaining to do: Arup is in the process of transforming itself from a renowned structural engineer, based around the high ethical standards of its founder Ove Arup, into a multidisciplinary consultant with a strong corporate image to maintain. Where once the firm refused to build nuclear power stations on moral grounds, its website now boasts of its involvement in engineering “indestructible flasks for transporting nuclear waste”. The firm has more than doubled in size in the last five years, and now includes dozens of divisions – including fire engineering, airport security and tunnelling – under the recently unified Arup umbrella brand. Last year, the group turned over £280m. But structural engineering is still at the core of Arup’s ethos, and the wobbly bridge saga has triggered a lot of “soul-searching and navel gazing”, Hogan admits – though he insists the firm decided to address its image long before that event. Senior figures within the firm are known to be unhappy about the apologetic way the saga was handled by management, and ex-employees say the gradual corporatisation of Arup means something of the old magic has been lost. Hogan, however, says that running a profitable business is in no way incompatible with keeping valuable creative staff happy. Whether connected to the bridge or not, Hogan’s appointment is significant: he is probably the highest-calibre in-house PR in the whole industry. He joins the firm from petrol giant Shell, where he oversaw its response to allegations that it was wreaking environmental havoc in the Niger Delta – one of the biggest corporate PR crises of the decade. Next time a bridge wobbles, Hogan will be there to catch the fallout – both internal and external.