For decades British engineers have been seen as playing an inadequate role in industry. Their restricted roles have been ascribed to diverse causes and conditions: as under-educated for the grounding to lead companies to ‘world class status; as ‘under-utilized’ by employment in technical support roles; and as under-professionalized in a supposed generally anti-engineering national culture. This study of young graduate engineers seeks to disentangle these blanket characterizations by differentiating between the sectoral and cross-national motive forces in an allegedly ubiquitous ‘British engineer problem'. Our evidence suggests that restricted jobs and careers are sectoral, as opposed to general, phenomena. In some sectors, a ‘crowding of engineers and under-recruitment of technician grades results from overreliance on a labour supply of standard, degree-level, qualification sources. Other important influences on work roles and careers are graduate engineers orientations to work, and engineers own microcorporate culture. Many British graduate engineers feel over-qualified for tasks, but German engineers are divided into the graduates of more theoretical university degrees and the graduates of more practically-focused vocational college degrees (Fachhochschule) responsible for more applied tasks. Within the British complex of occupational crowding and distance between technicians and engineers tasks, most engineers prefer not ‘high-flying', managerial careers but work involving engineering know-how. A defensive and subordinate-occupational culture in engineering departments, rather than an independent professional or enterprise one, results from these factors. The analysis concludes with an assessment of its implications for recent reforms to the qualifying procedures for engineering graduates.