Engineers and Social Engineering: Professional/Trade Unions and Social Mobility


In the twentieth century, engineering work in Australia was complicated by its nineteenth century roots. The term ‘engineering’ was used to describe some working-class occupations, but also other very senior, even managerial, jobs. The slippage was not just about the word. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, engineering professionalised, instating a long hierarchy. There were very elite, often capitalist, men at the top – the profession boasted such leaders as South Australian Premier Sir Henry Ayers and US President Herbert Hoover. There was a marked continuity with engineers further down the hierarchy, however. It was only later that the profession sought a hard distinction between ‘trade’ and ‘professional’ engineers. 

This long ‘ladder’ was reflected in hands-on work (as opposed to managerial, design or planning work), the workshops in which most engineers trained, and sometimes even the societies to which they belonged. In this sense, engineering was initially more egalitarian than most professions. This enabled what engineering leaders called ‘practical men’ to move into fields of engineering with higher pay and status. Early in the twentieth century some fields of engineering used this long ladder to good effect. Mining engineers, for example, structured lower levels of training into their professional associations, which helped draw innovation from practice into planning.

Similarly, for decades the Institution of Engineers, Australia tolerated several flexible pathways into the profession. Trade engineers, such as motor mechanics, were able to articulate their practical education into professional work. Certain leaders, including George Julius, denigrated the profession’s ‘workshop culture’, particularly in education, but the long ladder persisted into the post-war period.

In the 1950s, a professional union was established. In a work value case held between 1957–1960, with a verdict delivered in 1961, the Institution of Engineers used their associated union to push for a closer link with the ‘learned professions’. In the Professional Engineers’ Case the Australian Professional Engineers Association argued for the social and economic value of educated engineering work in order to secure the high margin above the basic wage. The margin they sought suggested that engineering should have a similar status – and thus pay rate – to law and medicine. The union brought in expert witnesses with qualifications in both engineering and medicine, who maintained that the engineering work they performed was more difficult than either of those better-paid professions, largely due to the mathematics involved. 

The purpose of this line of argument was threefold. Firstly, unless engineers were granted the pay of those elite professionals, the union warned, law and medicine would pilfer all the good talent. Secondly, positioning engineers at a lower status failed to acknowledge the considerable value that the engineering profession long maintained it added to society, believing, as they did, that engineers had literally built civilisation. Thirdly, evidence that engineering studies were harder than law or medicine suggested that it was intrinsically unfair that engineers earned less. 

These arguments presented the union with some difficulties, since they also wanted technical college graduates holding Diplomas to be recognised as professionals. Lawyers for employers found comparisons of engineering to medicine relatively acceptable, but found comparisons to their own profession galling. In their responses, they pointed to the working-class end of the profession, those with technical college Diplomas completed as part of an apprenticeship. These engineers, unlike medical and legal practitioners, had not even matriculated from high school. More than a few university-educated engineers shared their sentiment. In the end, the union successfully argued that Diplomates were just one step below university-graduated engineers and, after one year of service, they should be considered (and paid) the same.

To prevent a repercussive effect of wage inflation across the professions, the Association asked the Arbitration Court to ‘sever out the engineer for individual treatment, setting aside the historical yardstick approach which, in the Association’s view, had resulted in the just salary movement being withheld because of repercussive effects.’ This is to say, the professional engineers were prepared – indeed enthusiastic – to leave other workers behind in the pursuit of legal confirmation of their elevated status, which was soon recognised by increased salaries.

By contrast, the Professional Engineers’ Case worked against the interests of working-class engineers. This was because the professional engineers believed that their status and thus remuneration depended on their association with law and medicine and their disassociation from working-class ‘trade’ engineers. Trade engineers, such as motor mechanics, were now denied access to the increasing status of the engineering profession.

Motor mechanics especially found that their careers were now limited. They could go on to run their own repair shop, or even become technical advisors, but their knowledge and skills were no longer acknowledged as transferrable into related fields like aeronautical engineering. An increasing specialisation in engineering work augmented the new barriers that mechanics faced, though their initial construction was by professional engineers seeking to exclude them.

In the process of unionising then, professional engineers in Australia were articulating a relationship that put them in conflict with both the employer class and the working class. The Professional Engineers’ Case opened the way to improvements for journalists, social workers and university academics. This was not part of the plan, although it is perhaps significant that these were all middle-class employees. Unionisation for professionals did not necessarily engender solidarity with the working class on the basis of class conflict collectively focused upwards. Moreover, middle-class professionals were not only middle-class because they believed themselves to be so. Rather, middle-class consciousness was a relationship of conflict with employers, but also against the working class.

Dr Hannah Forsyth is a Senior Lecturer in History at the Australian Catholic University. Michael P.R. Pearson completed his PhD in History at ACU and now works as a researcher for Infrastructure Victoria. This piece is drawn their article in Labour History, No. 1, 2021.

Radical Currents, Labour Histories, No. 1 Autumn 2022, 13-14.