Engineering Careers: Challenge yourself

Female students shouldn't dismiss the idea of a career in engineering, says Dawn Fitt
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The Independent Online

Engineers are the people who create new technology and will shape the future of the world in which we live. The UK needs to reserve its place amongst the ranks of other countries in an increasingly global marketplace, a marketplace where competitive advantage is gained by developing new technologies and introducing innovative products. As our society develops we find a greater need for technology to make life better andfix some of the problems that are emerging, such as an ageing population, over-crowded cities, high energy consumption and a lack of water. On a lighter note, a huge team of engineers is being assembled to prepare the way for the Olympics in 2012.

However, while the need for engineers continues to grow, the supply does not. One reason is that we don't make enough use of the potential engineering talent of half the UK population: women. There are real skill shortages developing and so efforts are being made to make working conditions more appropriate to the modern age and its varied workforce. Starting salaries for new engineering graduates are now better than for many other subjects.

Engineering cannot be stereotyped: measuring a bridge site as traffic whizzes past; watching a satellite launch with crossed fingers as their aerial goes live; visiting a Bond Street shop to climb on the roof and take sound measurements; wearing a hard hat deep underground; showing off a concept car - these are all things that female engineers can experience.

Usually they are the sort of people who enjoy a challenge; they take great pride in their work and certainly have plenty to be proud of. Some work on site in mucky conditions; others never do. One civil engineer contributed to the rebuilding of St Pancras station despite never visiting it from her office a few miles away. These are all real women engineers. Guess which one is me!

What do we do about the women who would enjoy working in engineering but who never realise they have the chance? The Equal Opportunities Commission reported that women represent One in 12 engineers in the UK whilst only 2.8 per cent of engineers registered with the Engineering Council are women. Meanwhile, we are often reminded that the skills shortage is damaging to the UK economy. Women can plug this gap. Baroness Greenfield wrote a report for the Government that has led to changes. We now have a UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC) who are working with other organisations and trying to make a real difference.

Of course, these problems are not new. The Women's Engineering Society has worked since 1919 "promoting the education, training and practice of engineering among women". You may also have seen material from the Women into Science and Engineering (WISE) campaign launched over 20 years ago.

The Institute of Engineering Technology hosts the Young Woman Engineer of the Year Award, one of a range of awards for the very best female engineers that the UK has to offer, highlighting achievements of women in engineering and encouraging others to enter the profession. The profile of women in engineering has been raised by one of the former recipients of this award, Clare Roberts. Clare developed an interest in engineering relatively late in her career, and her rapid progression from a clerical role to a full design engineer impressed women already in the profession.

At the age of 24, working as a clerical assistant within a team of engineers, Clare found herself becoming increasingly frustrated when attempting to understand the technical jargon used by her engineering colleagues. "I simply wanted to understand what they were talking about," she says. She has since become a chartered engineer with high-level professional qualifications recognised worldwide.

Another winner, Helena Hutt, had wanted to be an engineer ever since she was young. "All the engineers I have meet have a sense of humour, which makes the day go by quicker. No two projects are the same. Working in engineering at Thames Water is a lot of fun, although it is also hard work too.

"While doing a hands-on job there is nothing better than fixing something that is broken. As a project engineer it is exciting designing something on paper and seeing it physically constructed and working. We spend a lot of time planning out the work and have constructed some enormous schemes. It's fantastic seeing them built. There are no limits in engineering but your imagination!"

Dawn Fitt is president of the Women's Engineering Society ( www.wes.org.uk). For more information you can also visit www.setwomenresource.org.uk and www.wisecampaign.org.uk

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