• Time to Banish Hard Hats?

    Following-like-sheep counting hard hats May 2013

    SMF calls for a ban on hard hats and clichéd images from advertising and promotion to improve the image of engineers and attract job applicants

    Sainsbury Management Fellowship (SMF), the charity that furthers the development of engineers through educational bursaries and mentoring, has launched the Hard Hat Index which measures how frequently hard hats appear in selected media. The Hard Hat Index is complemented by a YouGov poll on public perceptions about engineers, and focus group research with engineering graduates.

    The hard hat has become symbolic of engineers and SMF believes that this association is an example of how images detrimental to the perception of the role of engineers have far-reaching effects. This includes the ability to inspire, recruit and retain engineering graduates within the profession. SMF believes that the prevalent use of hard hats in the media, advertising, marketing literature, company and research reports defines engineers inaccurately, undermining their role as creative problem-solvers who improve our lives and shape tomorrow’s world.

    The SMF Hard Hat Index is based on 12 months monitoring of the appearance of hard hats in carefully selected engineering media and 18 months monitoring of the national broadsheets. During those periods, 185 depictions of engineers wearing hard hats featured in 16 engineering titles (118 adverts and 67 editorials); where more appropriate or aspirational images could have been used to better engage with readers. Nine national newspapers featured 940 hard hat images (258 adverts and 682 editorials).

    SMF created the Hard Hat Index to encourage the industry to examine the image it portrays of engineering through its depictions of engineers in hard hats and other uninspiring images that obscure the excitement, diversity and rewards of the engineering profession.

    SMF President, David Falzani explained, “Whilst intentionally whimsical, the index highlights a serious issue. A recent EngineeringUK study revealed that engineering companies will have 1.86 million jobs requiring engineering skills by 2020, but the UK produces only 46,000 engineering graduates each year. At this rate we will not meet the economy’s demand for qualified engineers. The institutions and educational establishment are doing good work to encourage more young people into engineering, but the industry is neglecting the impact of the visual identifiers they use for engineers. Whether this neglect is due to a lack of awareness of the importance of this issue or sheer laziness, ‘brand engineering’ needs a radical overhaul. We must better understand the importance of image to Generation Y and replace outmoded images with more accurate, dynamic and appealing ones.”

    YouGov Poll
    When YouGov asked over 2,000 people online throughout the UK what items (up to four) they thought engineers primarily wear on an average working day, the hard hat came top with 63% of the votes, whereas a business suit received 25% of votes. The voting for ‘locations where engineers predominantly work’ showed stereotypical views with building and construction sites coming top (69% of votes), followed by industrial sites (66% of votes), with offices coming fifth (40% of the votes). Most people picture engineers working on building, industrial or manufacturing sites, yet the reality is that thousands of engineers work in office settings.

    David Falzani continued;”HR directors ask us why engineers are always portrayed by pictures of people wearing hard hats. Images of hard hats appear in annual reports, job adverts and other publications perpetuating the myth that all engineers work hands on.”
    More positively, engineers came sixth (49% of votes) in a league table of 11 professions that are particularly well respected in society.

    When asked to choose between a selection of attributes and skills associated with engineers, professional came top (66% of votes), followed by seeing them as well qualified (64%), and being practical came third (61% of votes). However, ‘having exciting jobs’ pulled in just 19% of votes putting it in 9th place out of 10. This suggests the industry is not managing nor selling the attractiveness of engineering careers to the public.

    Focus Group
    The focus group research, conducted with winners of the Engineering Leadership Awards (ELAs) scheme, supports SMF’s assertion that the visual representations of engineering careers ‘turn-off’ young graduates. The ELAs viewed a range of editorial and advertising images from the industry’s own engineering magazines and were asked to give their opinions on the images. The majority of the images were deemed to be:
    • Too traditional, old-fashioned or clichéd
    • Contained negative stereotypes
    • Too male orientated
    • Bland, dull, boring and uninspiring

    The few creative adverts without hard hats or other stereotypical props such as visibility jackets, were seen as eye-catching and a positive representation of engineers; demonstrating teamwork, problem-solving skills, expertise, dynamism, progress, influence and success. These companies appealed to young people as prospective employers, yet these ads were in the minority.
    Falzani continued; “Our research and Hard Hat Index highlights the need for engineers to take greater responsibility for the image of our profession. We cannot complain that insufficient numbers of young people are drawn to engineering while paying scant attention to the image we are giving them. Employers complain that they can’t get the right calibre of people with the right skills and training. But they can’t hope to attract and retain the brightest engineering graduates – people with high expectations of working in a prestigious job where they can make a difference in the world, gain job satisfaction, travel globally and earn a good salary – when they do not support the creation and maintenance of an accurate and suitable image.”

    The focus group showed that corporate image is very important. Who we work for reflects our own self-image and most young engineers don’t want to work in a business that projects itself with hard hats and overalls.

    “The industry is being ineffective in how it portrays itself. It is our responsibility to communicate the opportunities better – we need to excite people about the diversity of engineering careers, so they can see the scope of responsibility, the opportunity to improve mankind’s condition, grow the economy and earn a good salary. Building a better brand identity for engineers, alongside the work being done to promote engineering to young people, will draw more high calibre graduates towards the profession and ensure that a diversity of people stay within engineering.

    “We hope the Hard Hat Index will start a dialogue about the image of engineering and encourage companies and the professional societies to review how they portray the profession through their marketing, recruitment, publishing and reporting,” concluded Falzani.
    Sainsbury Management Fellows will continue to monitor the trade and national media to track how the industry is progressing with re-packaging and representing itself to the engineering community, as well as to the wider public. The Hard Hat Index will be published annually.

    Note : Figures are from the quantitative research, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2,064 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 12-15 April 2013. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).


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The Sainsbury Management Fellows is registered as a charity: Engineers in Business Fellowship, charity number 1147203 and is a company limited by guarantee : 07807250