UK needs over one million new engineers and technicians, says Royal Academy of Engineering

With women accounting for less than 10 per cent of the sector's workforce, Katie Grant reports on efforts to win over schoolgirls

Katie Grant
Sunday 21 June 2015 21:12 BST
The UK has the lowest proportion of women engineers in Europe, according to recent research by the campaign group Wise
The UK has the lowest proportion of women engineers in Europe, according to recent research by the campaign group Wise (Alamy)

The UK will need more than a million new engineers and technicians in the next five years, but despite the skills shortage women still account for less than 10 per cent of the sector’s workforce.

That is why 23 June will see the second annual National Women in Engineering Day (NWED), organised to focus attention on the wide-ranging career opportunities available to girls and help instil a passion for engineering in future generations of women.

Analysis by the Royal Academy of Engineering suggests we will need more than a million new engineers and technicians by 2020. This will require a doubling of the current number of annual engineering graduates and apprentices.

The UK has the lowest proportion of women in engineering in Europe, according to recent research published by the campaign group Wise. Inspiring girls to pursue a career in engineering is imperative if we are to tackle the looming crisis, leading industry figures including Professor Dame Ann Dowling, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the inventor Sir James Dyson have argued.

NWED is the brainchild of Dawn Bonfield, president of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). She saw the organisation’s 95th anniversary last year as an opportunity to celebrate the work that women do in engineering and to encourage more girls to enter the profession. The inaugural event – which coincided with the first day of Wimbledon and the group stage of the World Cup – exceeded expectations with the hashtag #NWED trending above both sporting events on Twitter, the materials engineer said.

WES is determined to combat the unconscious biases of many parents and teachers that can discourage girls from pursuing a career in engineering, and hopes that initiatives such as NWED will help achieve this.

While great efforts are being made to address the tremendous skills shortage and encourage young people into engineering, it is mainly boys who are being targeted, said Ms Bonfield, who believes there is not enough being done to appeal to girls and show them it is a viable career option.

“Because it’s so traditionally acceptable for boys to go into the profession, they are pushed down that route by schools, parents, society – the pathway will open up easily.

“But with girls, parents and teachers will often say, ‘engineering’s not really for girls, what about something else?’ Pathways close, barriers are put in the way. They won’t identify with a career in engineering.”

It is crucial to encourage girls to study Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects and present them with accessible female role models, said Ms Bonfield.

Equally, it is important to make people aware of the benefits of a diverse workforce, not just for the purposes of inclusion and equality or to plug the skills gap but because it will result in better decision making and, almost certainly, a superior product.

Nayera Aslam, 30, a chartered civil engineer from Birmingham, agreed it is “critical” that industry leaders take steps to create greater diversity in their workforces.

A senior consultant in the transportation sector of the design and engineering firm Aecom, Ms Aslam’s interest in engineering was first ignited with the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994.

“The idea of travelling by train through a tunnel under water as far as France seemed incredible to my young mind. I wanted to find out how this technical feat was possible and whether I could do something similar,” Ms Aslam said.

“Civil engineering touches every aspect of our lives. From roads and bridges to sewers and water-treatment systems, civil engineers have designed so much of what we depend on day to day,” she added.

“Greater diversity is critical. Engineering is all about problem solving. Creativity, ingenuity and lateral thinking are essential skills.

“The greater the diversity – whether in terms of gender, race or background – the better the outcome, I find. We are all the product of our personal and cultural experiences, and we can draw on these diverse backgrounds to be more innovative in solving complex, technical challenges.”

The director: ‘diversity is essential’

Selma Hunter, 50, is director of the engineering firm Doosan Babcock

I’ve been working in engineering for nearly 30 years and I never considered it not to be an option.

It was only after I was working in the industry that I realised it was unusual.

We need to learn to excite girls in chemistry, physics and maths classes. There has been a tremendous amount of progress, but it takes a bit of time. Having more female role models would make a career in engineering more attractive to girls.

There are so many things you can do with an engineering degree. Having a diverse range of people creating a specific product is essential because you’re solving problems. If you’ve got diversity, you’ve got a better chance of solving the problem.

When you have diversity in your leadership team, it’s far more likely this will be reflected in the wider workforce. The diversity of applicants I get is tremendous. Peers in the industry I’ve spoken to don’t always get that.

My message to all young women considering engineering would be to go for it.”

The manager: ‘we don’t just wear dirty overalls’

Nicola Park, 41, from Worcester, is an industrial gases engineering manager at Air Products

I first read about chemical engineering when I was picking my GCSEs. I liked science and maths and the link between pure science and applying it really appealed to me.

My company sells industrial gases, such as oxygen for hospitals and helium for MRI scanners. I have a team of 100 project managers, engineers, maintenance managers and technicians and am responsible for four garage workshops and two cryogenic equipment workshops, alongside our refinery services group.

I think engineering is perceived as a job where you carry a spanner and wear dirty overalls. Whilst I do have a hard hat, overalls and safety boots when I am on site, I also spend time in the office and meeting customers.

It is a male-dominated industry, but the only thing preventing our success is having the self-confidence to say we can do the job and do it really well.

The networker: ‘I’m so much more confident now’

Software engineer Dr Sue Black, 53, from London, is founder of BCSWomen, the largest UK membership organisation for women working in computing

Engineering is about understanding how things work and making them function better. You can apply that to so many different things.

I left school and home at 16. I got married and had three kids by the time I was 23. After I got a divorce, I was living in a council flat.

I did maths at night school and applied to London’s South Bank University to do computing studies. I liked it so much I decided to do a PhD in software engineering.

I love technology and I’m trying to get other people excited about it.

In my computing class there were 83 people and eight of us were women but I was always encouraged as a woman while I was studying.

Going to conferences made me nervous, though. There were often five women to 95 men; I’d introduce myself and people would ignore me.

About 20 years ago I was invited to a women-in-science conference, which was about 98 women to two men. It was so different – it was buzzing. I set up the first UK online network for women in tech, BCSWomen, shortly after. I’m so much more confident now.”

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