23 June 2015
Tackling the skills gap
Women are still dramatically underrepresented in industries such as engineering, manufacturing and construction, despite the government spending millions on initiatives to widen female participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects. Women account for just 7 per cent of engineering professionals in the UK and according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) only 15.5 per cent of graduates from first degree courses in engineering and technology courses in 2012-13 were women. This underrepresentation presents a real threat to the UK’s economy.
Why we should care
Engineering plays a vital role in maintaining the UK’s competitive edge in the global economy and is a crucial factor in the country’s recovery. However, it’s an industry that is facing severe skills shortages, and it’s predicted that the UK will need 87,000 graduate-level engineers every year between now and 2020. Currently, the higher education system is producing only 46,000 engineering graduates, the majority of whom are male. In addition, engineering is an industry that is evolving fast and many of the jobs and specialisms which will be required in 20 years’ time do not even exist yet. The UK has a long way to go to fill this skills gap and attracting more women into engineering careers is crucial.
Addressing the issue
The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) is committed to seeing its percentage of female graduates in engineering subjects rise. The UK as a whole has the lowest number of women practising as engineers in Europe, and while UCLan says this is disappointing, it believes it indicates that the underrepresentation is a cultural and sociological issue, rather than a physiological one. However, there is a UK-wide responsibility to attract more women into engineering.
Dr Nathalie Renevier, a senior lecturer and course leader for undergraduate and postgraduate maintenance engineering courses at UCLan, believes primary schools should be doing more to tackle out-dated perceptions and make “unglamorous” careers more relatable to young girls.
“We need to pique girls’ interests in engineering at primary school level and sustain it right through education. Subjects like science and technology can be linked with the real engineering world from an early age."
Nathalie says: “We need to pique girls’ interests in engineering at primary school level and sustain it right through education. Subjects like science and technology can be linked with the real engineering world from an early age, and the earlier we introduce the industry to women the more relatable it becomes.”
A poor understanding of the engineering industry has also been cited as one of the reasons behind the gender imbalance, as well as the perception of a career in engineering as being a ‘male’ career pathway. According to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), the age of 16 is a critical point where women are lost to a career in engineering and that careers guidance does not do enough to counter the view that careers in engineering are ‘for boys’.
Dr Renevier agrees: “There is a perception that a career in engineering is dirty or unglamorous, but schools have an opportunity to make girls aware of the multitude of disciplines across the industry, such as textiles and 3D conceptualisation, which are often more appealing to females.
“We should be tackling stereotypes head on. There’s scope for engineering businesses to open their doors to schoolchildren so pupils can see for themselves what a day in the industry involves. We need to be showcasing local companies too; the North West was a cradle for the industrial revolution and we’re missing a trick to engage.”
UCLan, in partnership with Royal Institution (Ri), has created a Young Scientist Centre (YSC), a state-of-the-art lab and the first national branch of the YSC outside of London. The centre runs a series of interactive workshops for children aged seven to 16, with the aim to expose children to the wide range of career options involving science and engineering. Workshops include a session where children learn to programme Lego robots to navigate around a giant Mars landscape, and another sees children use a 3D printer to complete different engineering challenges.
YSC centre manager Dr Elizabeth Granger said: “When I was in school most people hadn’t even heard of a career in engineering, or if they had, they had misconceptions about what engineering actually was. That’s a big problem, but through the YSC we can inspire and engage the scientists and engineers of the future by showing them the different and creative options available and give them a chance to be real engineers for the day. The earlier we can get children interested in these careers, the better.”
More information about the YSC can be found at www.uclan.ac.uk/ysc
“We need to start early to attract girls into the physical and formal sciences at school and into physics, engineering and technology degrees at University. We should focus talent pathways, beginning in education and ending in industry.”
The role of key influencers
The IPPR report also states that both parents and young people believe that parents are the most important influencer of young people’s career choices. This was certainly the case for Zoe Nicholls, who graduated from UCLan last year with a first class honours degree in quantity surveying and securing a role working for Aecom, a global provider of services in markets including architecture, engineering and construction. She was encouraged to pursue a typically male-dominated career path by her mother, who is also a quantity surveyor.
Fellow UCLan graduate Beverly Duckworth now works for Quanta Associates and was given her first taste of the industry by her father, who offered her initial employment within his own firm. She explains: “I was encouraged to study the course by my dad who has been a quantity surveyor for more than 40 years. Six years ago he gave me the opportunity to work for him to determine whether or not it was right for me. I completed my degree part-time which has allowed me to continue working and I’ve not looked back since.”
Other key influencers, such as teachers and careers advisors, also have an important role to play. Katie Parkinson now holds a role at Galliford Try Infrastructure after a former employer suggested she study for a degree at UCLan and Rebecca Smith graduated from UCLan with a first class BEng (Hons) degree in Robotics Engineering. It was a conversation with the husband of Rebecca’s sixth form mentor which convinced Rebecca that a career in engineering would be for her.
Fixing the pipeline
Rebecca is now a Graduate Engineer at UK Power Works and alongside her training works as an engineer to restore power to homes and businesses in the event of a fault in the network. She finds her career in engineering incredibly rewarding, and says: “There’s nothing like the good feeling you get when someone comes out and genuinely thanks you for your work. Seeing my portfolio of completed jobs slowly increase makes me feel like I’m contributing to the company and doing something useful, and to me there really isn’t any greater achievement.”
While Rebecca is an example of a female graduate who considers engineering as a rewarding a fruitful career option, she is still within the minority. UCLan believes the UK has a long way to go to correct gender imbalance and is committed to helping to breakdown unhelpful stereotypes, attracting talented women into engineering and fixing the talent pipeline.
Dr Renevier concludes: “We need to start early to attract girls into the physical and formal sciences at school and into physics, engineering and technology degrees at University. We should focus talent pathways, beginning in education and ending in industry.”