Re-igniting professional passion – is this the key to membership retention in the Google Age?

By Brian Burridge, CEO, Royal Aeronautical Society


Attracting and retaining members is, self-evidently, core business for membership organisations. Individual motivation to join varies and certainty changes over time. For those like the Royal Aeronautical Society which are sector-based, the vibrancy of the industries and organisations in that sector also plays a crucial part. We are the only global professional body dedicated to the entire aerospace community; from manufacturers to airlines and from airports to regulators. We therefore embrace a range of professional disciplines including engineers and aircrew. But the uniting force is that all our members are enthused by a passion for aviation in all its forms but, increasingly, we find that passion alone is not enough.


In the engineering sector, the professional membership organisations are grappling with an issue that we loosely call the Missing Three Million. This refers to a large segment who have no formal affiliation with the institutions charged with the registration of individuals on the route to Chartered status, the accreditation of degree courses and the delivery of continuing professional development. The Professional Engineering Institutions, or PEIs as we are known, commissioned a detailed study across the age range, by Polaris Research, to understand what lay behind this problem. The research is very revealing and is by no means applicable solely to the engineering membership sector: it starts to answer questions that all of us have about attracting and retaining Millennials and Generation Z.


To set the scene, there are 4.9 million engineers and technicians in the UK of which about 25% do not work in engineering companies. Of the remainder, just over 20% are members of their associated professional institution. High on the list of reasons for not joining is relevance in terms of lack of perceived benefits. All of us who run membership organisations are acutely aware of the ‘relevance’ challenge and the constant need to demonstrate our relevance, a facet that never stands still and needs continuously refreshing. To put this into context, a key question was aimed at identifying the main career challenges individuals face. Top of the list by a fair margin, was a lack of time. The next two, in equal measure, were poor career planning within their organisation and limitations on developing their own skills.


Earlier research had clearly identified that the first four years of an engineer’s career is the period when they are most susceptible to professional registration and to join the relevant institution. This susceptibility drops-off markedly at the four-year point and again after 10 years: from the age of 40, they are a lost cause. This seemingly correlates with the career challenges cited above: a sense of being in the ‘squeezed middle’ – time poor, no-one looking after your career and no time to upgrade your skills. So, there are some immediate lessons for us here on being easy to do business with by offering free on-line engagement and meeting training needs by offering easy access, tailored material. There was a strong expectation amongst those surveyed that the latter should also be free.


Probing more deeply, in terms of keeping up to date, the research revealed that 97% of respondents used Google to solve work problems and that membership of organisations was low on the list of responses.  However, the notion of on-line forums and special interest groups was seen more positively than expected. Responding to the question, ‘would you be interested in joining a special interest group focused on your topic area?’ 31% said ‘Yes absolutely’ with 38% saying ‘Yes probably, if the topic area was correct’: these responses were broadly consistent across the age range.


So, the first priority is to offer easily accessible digital content aimed at creating relationships with these ‘missing’ engineers. In addition, in the case of the Royal Aeronautical Society, we also need to re-think our continuing professional development offer as progressive, modular packages that deliver knowledge effectively and make the best use of our members’ precious time. But, will these actions alone be enough to guarantee our sustainability: probably not?  Rather, we also need to reignite that passion which acts as the synergistic glue of this Society.


Earlier decades saw high speed flight accelerate to six times the speed of sound in 20 years. It was all about flying further, faster and higher and ultimately getting to the moon. Social benefits such as jet airline travel, GPS navigation, the internet and advances in digital computing flowed from the related research. But this dynamism didn’t last into the new millennium when aversion to risk became the predominate culture. Now, however, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is bringing us exciting new technologies in the form of artificial intelligence, robotics, machine learning and quantum science which will have a dramatic impact on aerospace, limited only by human imagination. Societal benefits that will flow from this could include predictive healthcare, carbon-neutral travel and support for an ageing society.  So, we are once again in an interesting and exciting era which might just act to reduce that Missing Three Million by a substantial proportion.


Brian Burridge will be leading a session at this year’s memcom conference on 20th June titled Future Trends – Millennials, Minefields and Members: Navigating the Unknowns in Aerospace. 

Session details:

The onset of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is bringing transformational change to all aspects of engineering driven by some extraordinary technologies but none more so than in aerospace.  What an engineer actually does in the future may look markedly different from today’s understanding. This presentation will apply personal experience from past transformational change in an attempt to determine how this new era will look through the eyes of the millennial generation and what that means for the sustainability of one of the UK’s most important advanced manufacturing sectors.

Tickets for the memcom full day conference can be purchased from Eventbrite. Launched in 2000, memcom has consistently led the way in thought leadership in the membership sector for over two decades.

Trillium are the Royal Aeronautical Society’s digital transformation partners

We deliver digital transformation for membership organisations. By bringing together strategy, digital and CRM, we transform the entire user experience, improving your membership acquisition, engagement and retention. Member experience matters. Our services range from insight and planning to creative design and information architecture. This enables us to optimise technology and build intuitive, valuable, integrated CRM and website solutions for: membership management, member insights and reporting, education, training and CPD, membership finance, Direct Debit, member engagement scoring, events and conferences, venue management, marketing and communications and personalised member portals. #ExperienceMatters