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Tabling debate: Widening the skills appeal | Year of Engineering 2018

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Jessica Tabinor Employer Hub

 

To encourage more people into engineering careers we must first engineer a new narrative for the sector.

This was the headline theme during our recent ‘Year of Engineering 2018: Inspiring a Generation’ roundtable. Held in partnership with the University of Salford, the debate brought together industry trailblazers, education providers and government agencies, including the National Apprenticeship Service.

Keynote presentations from Dr Maria Stukoff, director of the Morson Maker Space at the University of Salford and Syd Carson, business development director at Morson Projects, provided insights into the current state of engineering and sparked debate into how organisations can collaborate to overcome the growing skills gap. Current forecasts from EngineeringUK suggest that we need an additional 186,000 engineers every year in the UK until 2024 to meet growing demand.

Attendees were unanimous that the narrative and culture of engineering, which is currently one that is masculine and physically demanding, is holding the sector back from attracting the right calibre of skills and a more diverse workforce.

Attracting the next generation of engineers depends largely on the strength of our outreach activities. The language and imagery used to showcase engineering should profile its many positives, including creativity, financial and the rewarding, lifelong careers on offer. Without this, the industry will continue to fail to attract and retain talented people who do not conform to its traditional stereotypes.

“Rather than saying ‘Do you want to work in nuclear?’ we should be saying to young people ‘Do you want to work with robots and change the future?’. This resonates far more with young minds who are already very socially aware and have access to so much information at their fingertips.”

Dr Maria Stukoff, director of the Morson Maker Space at the University of Salford

Improving education outcomes

Attendees agreed that a lack of confidence and technical subject knowledge amongst primary school teachers is having a major impact on engineering and STEM learning. Government targets and tables also mean that teachers are often more focussed on generic professional development in order to achieve positive Ofsted grades, rather than delivering fast-advancing subjects.

“We need to train teachers in more specialist subjects. This strategy of upskilling must come from central Government and be developed in line with UK industry to understand what skills are most lacking.”

Syd Carson, business development director at Morson Projects

The quality of teaching is an important driver of educational outcomes in engineering as well as the level of interest in the subject. Primary school teachers should be encouraged to enhance their understanding of engineering theory and application, whilst delivering meaningful engagement into the subject through the day-to-day curriculum. Teaching must align engineering concepts with real-world applications, as it is this social aspect of how the sector can improve and save lives that is highly attractive.

“We understand that there isn’t enough time in the day to teach everything but engineering crosses so many subjects, from the history of a product or programme through to developing good communication, written and analytical skills.”

Dr Maria Stukoff, director of the Morson Maker Space at the University of Salford

Everyone attending offered present-day examples to showcase the enthusiasm for STEM subjects across all genders at primary school age, yet there were concerns that these perceptions often change once young people reach high school, especially amongst girls. There is a clear disengagement from leaving primary school to when pupils choose their GSCE options. Career aspirations aren’t driven throughout the early years of high school, often due to a lack of funding and limited careers guidance, yet this is when students are most influenced by their parents, teachers and peers.

Parents were cited as the biggest blocker in the number of young people that choose non-traditional academic routes, due to dated perceptions of engineering and apprenticeships in general.

If we are to make ‘apprenticeships the norm’ then we must showcase the benefits and opportunities that they provide, such as no student debt, hands-on experience and being paid to earn while you learn. Parents often encourage their children to go to university because of the perceived prestige that it brings and it’s this same prestige that we must instil into vocational training pathways.

“Engineering is a catalyst for addressing social mobility issues for future generations. The apprenticeship route is so strong in engineering and anyone can become an apprentice regardless of your background, location and parents’ income.”

Sam Price, head of client engagement at Morson International 

The Levy will act as a further catalyst in bringing high-quality apprenticeships, right through to degree level, into the workplace. Degree apprenticeships, in particular, give many skilled workers the chance to rewind the clock and return to university later in life, especially for those who may not have had the opportunity previously.

Engineering diversity

Gender parity in engineering was another key theme and it was unanimously agreed that the focus should not be on achieving quotas, but instead recognising that organisations need diverse perspectives to advance and solve problems.

Engineering is an industry that’s 91% male and 94% white. Fifty-five percent of the UK’s current population is female, yet just nine percent of its engineering workforce is women, meaning organisations are missing out on a huge pool of talent. UK engineering also continues to lag behind our international peers, with Europe’s workforce comprising around 20% females, the Middle East 50% and the Far East as high as 65%.

“Today’s most sought after workers in engineering are blue collar, which traditionally attract white British males. We need greater diversity across all levels of engineering, from grass roots right through to professional level. There are so many Level 1 and Level 2 roles that will change people’s lives and the face of engineering, which just aren’t profiled enough.”

Matthew Leavis, executive manager, head of UK Training at Morson Vital Training

A landmark campaign

The roundtable event mirrored the aspirations of the Year of Engineering 2018. But despite the Government-backed campaign aiming to increase awareness and understanding of engineering, specifically to young people aged 7-16, opinion around the table was that little was being done by ministers to mobilise engagement.

In a sector that’s known for being insular, there were concerns that the Year of Engineering 2018 campaign will have little impact on the nation and more should be done between now and December 2018 in terms of advertising and mandating that sponsors and other key organisations throughout the supply chain partner with academic intuitions to deliver long-term change.

“It’s clear that better collaboration is needed to inspire the engineers of tomorrow and boost the numbers entering the profession. Ministers, education providers and organisations must join forces and promote, if that’s what it takes to protect the future of engineering in the UK.

“We also need to actively change perceptions and misunderstandings around the sector and highlight the life-long STEM careers that the industry holds for people, whatever their background and wherever they live. As the UK’s number one technical recruiter, we’re committed to inspiring a new generation and are working to become a collective, unified voice for change in engineering.”

Ged Mason, CEO, Morson Group