Every year, primary school kids around the country celebrate careers day by dressing up as the job they’d like to do when they grow up. Amidst the mini doctors, firefighters and nurses turning up at the school gates, you won’t spot many mini-engineers; particularly amongst the girls.
The lack of awareness of potential careers in engineering – amongst both children and their parents – has been a significant obstacle to attracting talent to engineering professions over the past few decades, which has contributed to a significant skills shortage. If children don’t know what potential roles are out there, they cannot aim for them and may be missing out on developing a career that is both fulfilling and financially rewarding.
It’s an issue that is particularly striking when it comes to the number of girls working towards careers in engineering. According to the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) only nine percent of the engineering workforce in the UK is female, with young women making up just 3.8 percent of engineering Apprenticeship starts in 2013/14.
This is despite the significant efforts that have been put into promoting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths) subjects in schools and the investment that has been ploughed into improving teaching provision and facilities in this area. While the general message that a STEM-focused education is a route into a wide variety of interesting and lucrative careers seems to be getting through in high schools and further education environments, children’s ideas about potential future careers are often formed at a much earlier age.
Anecdotal stories from female engineers testify to this trend. Many were influenced in their career decision because a family member was an engineer, rather than because they were switched on to the idea at high school.
This raises the question, how do we influence parents to promote the idea of a career in engineering to their children and, in particular, to their daughters?
The answer is that education about engineering needs to go beyond the classroom and into the community so that both future generations and their influencers understand the true diversity and opportunity on offer. Only by changing perceptions about engineering can we change the demographics of those choosing to enter the sector.
Parents who are also engineers are already evangelists for the sector, but we now need them to influence their friends and their friends’ children as well as their own families if we are to fill our future skills needs.
The media also has a key role to play, not only in highlighting the variety of careers on offer but also in avoiding the stereotypes of engineering as a male-dominated environment that have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s still a perception that engineering involves manual labour or being ‘on the tools’, when in fact it’s more mental ability. White collar jobs are traditionally defined as those performed in an office, cubicle or admin setting, yet engineering is bucking the trend with lots of technical roles involving the design, build and maintenance of software and equipment, which are very thought-intensive processes.
Perceptions about careers in engineering are changing but we need more rapid change to influence young people at all stages of their education journey by showcasing the range of exciting careers from entry-level positions through to management and senior roles. The diversity of careers that an engineering qualification can open up isn’t something that’s getting through to young people, with the following just a selection of the many roles available:
- Aerospace & avionics engineering
- Architectural & construction engineering
- Civil engineering
- Commissioning engineering
- Electrical engineering
- Estimator engineering
- Mechanical engineering
- Petroleum, oil & gas engineering
- Plant engineering
- Rail engineering
- Site engineering
- Software engineering
- Telecoms, digital comms & networks engineering