Before I fell into into my first job in industrial marketing in 1995, I have to confess to having had little interest in a career in engineering. An aversion to mathematics and science, largely due to poor teaching, had steered me into the arms of humanities subjects, which I saw as offering a safe shelter from numbers and complex formulae.
Fast forward 21 years and I am now a passionate advocate of anything and everything to do with engineering. In the last two decades, I have written about everything from sewage digesters through to building construction, complex communications technologies and, most recently, robotic automation. In that time, my attitudes to both mathematics and science has been transformed, as my job has allowed me to see they are applied in real-life situations as opposed to the dry theoretical examples of my schooldays.
All of this has left me with a deep appreciation of the contribution that engineering makes to everyday life and a realisation that, without it, our lives would be very different indeed.
It’s therefore concerning that the UK is currently facing a massive shortfall in the number of young people wanting to become the engineers of tomorrow, with projections indicating around 257,000 unfilled vacancies in engineering practices by 2022.
It’s hard to know where things went wrong. The engineers of the Victorian era, such as Brunel, Telford, Stephenson and Bazalgette enjoyed the sort of celebrity status accorded to today’s footballers and musicians. Their achievements were heralded as monuments to British ingenuity and inventiveness. Fast forward to now, however, and the picture is very different, with engineering firms struggling to recruit the people they need.
Much of this seems to be down to ignorance of the opportunities available. In particular, ‘engineering’ in the UK tends to be construed very narrowly – modern engineering has little in common with the traditional images of oily rags and spanners.
Take for example, the glass-bottomed swimming pool which will be suspended 10 storeys above south London. Or the Higgs Boson experiment at CERN, where protons are smashed together at the speed of light in a 25 mile radius tunnel. Or, imagine being the next scientist to find a cure for cancer or a cryptologist working for MI5 to solve complex cyphers written by terrorists. These are all jobs that can be had by science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates.
Yet despite the exciting nature of such opportunities, young British adults display a distinct lack of interest in these courses.
To help us find out why, we approached Naomi Climer, President of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, the IET. We were fascinated to hear her experiences of the engineering industry on the Radio 4 programme ‘The Life Scientific’ as well as her opinions on how what needs to be done to promote engineering as a ‘cool’ career choice in the UK.
As the first female president of the IET, Naomi has an insight into what it could take to get young people, and particularly young women, into the profession. According to Naomi, being an engineer can and ought to be ‘as cool as being a rock star.’
Naomi is a driving force behind the IET’s Engineer a Better World campaign to get more young people and girls to think of engineering as the career for them and today we are pleased to present her ideas on how we can all help achieve this worthwhile goal.
1. Why does engineering in the UK have such an image problem?
My career has enabled me to spend a few years in California where engineers are treated like rock stars. When comparing this to the reality of how engineers are talked about in this country, it makes me wonder why the image of the industry is so drastically different here.
Recent IET research used to mark our Engineer a Better World campaign proves that there is an outdated view of the industry, often held by parents. These perceptions are clearly not up to date with the modern landscape of engineering, and are also, albeit sometimes unconsciously, being passed down to children.
Across the pond, the French say ‘ingénieur’ which sounds like ‘ingenious’; now contrast that with Blighty’s ‘engineer’ which sounds like ‘engine’. The word in English has the potential to give the stereotypical perception that engineers are down in the boiler room – fixing stuff, which, for most, I imagine, doesn’t accurately convey the artistry, creativity and innovation that France’s ‘ingénieur’ has the power to conjure up.
2. How can we change this perception?
The media is a powerful tool which has the potential to influence how we think and what society values. The IET is one of the organisations playing a huge role in educating influencers and parents through the media to help change impressions about engineering. I’m honoured to be leading the IET’s Engineer a Better World campaign which aims to inspire the next generation of engineers and technicians by encouraging young people and their parents to nurture their curiosity and think differently about careers in engineering.
Additionally, one of the activities is Engineering Open House Day which is running again on Friday 29 July this year and is the perfect way for engineers to communicate and celebrate their roles, face-to-face with the UK’s parents and children.
3. Are there positive role models in the media for young people in general and girls in particular to follow?
I’d like to think I am a positive role model for engineering. I’m the IET’s first female president and have made it my personal mission to shout about the diversity in the sector and challenge perceptions in the mainstream media. There are a growing number of other role models in the media, including some of the IET’s Young Woman Engineer Award winners and finalists such as Roma Agrawal who have an increasing presence in the media. Unfortunately though, there’s still not enough.
In a broader context, gender equality and celebrating professional women has become more of a media norm. With this in mind, now is the time to inspire and empower women about the rewarding career options in engineering. And, we most definitely need to make sure the momentum remains and that national conversations continue to ensure people know about the fantastic accomplishments that our engineers – both men and women – achieve.
4. What is putting off girls and young women from entering the engineering professions? And, how would having more women involved in engineering benefit their employers and society in general?
I’m aware the industry is, according to stats, painted as a male dominant arena, but women should not be put off by this – although I can empathise why they would on a surface level. In my experience, being a woman within the industry has not been an issue – and has often been an advantage, helping me to stand out and make an impression. It’s proven that organisations with a diverse workforce in the form of different backgrounds, upbringing and sexes are more likely to come up with ideas and innovation that will be relevant to a broader range of society.
5. Do we need to attract individuals who would otherwise go into the more ‘creative’ industries?
Careers in any STEM subjects are competing with what people may associate as more creative career paths such as sports, drama or music. For example, as a young girl I desperately wanted to be a cellist when I grew up. Fortunately, my father steered me into a STEM career where I found my passion for engineering. However, my passion for the arts has still been allowed to progress in my engineering career by seamlessly blending the two with each other through Sony projects such as broadcasting live theatre, music and sports to audiences in cinema.
6. Is part of the problem that the word ‘engineering’ has become too narrow to describe everything that can be achieved using today’s technologies?
The industry is forever expanding and engineering is much more interdisciplinary than before – similar to other industries such as healthcare, education and marketing. All sectors of the industry play a part in what makes the core of engineering so important, and I would not say it’s too narrow a term, people just need to be know more about the exciting world of engineering.
7. Do you think that schools could be doing more to broaden the appeal of engineering?
Teachers often come under scrutiny by perhaps not giving pupils enough problem-solving work or not having enough knowledge about engineering themselves. However, it’s unfair to expect teachers to have the broad knowledge that is needed to fully capture the excitement of the industry.
The curriculum should be revisited to allow room for engineering related activities to be weaved into other core subjects such as maths and science. Mandatory work experience for pupils would also help to introduce students to the exciting world of engineering.
8. How is the profession changing – is it evolving in a way that would make it more attractive to female entrants?
One of the most exciting things about a career in engineering is that it is always evolving – especially with technological advancements. I also think, however, that the contribution of some really inspiring women is getting more attention which I hope will act as an encouragement for young girls across the UK.
Putting gender discourse aside for a moment, everyone should see engineering as stimulating. It’s literally all around us and affects our cultural worlds in a huge way. Take a look at the mobile phone which you may be reading this on or is sat next to you on your desk – it’s extraordinary, complex and a feat of engineering that most of us rely on continuously.
Technology has become a totally integrated part of our lives and will only become more so in the future. And, as our lives continue to evolve alongside technology, we cannot allow for this life-affecting technology to be designed and built without the input of half the population, and for so many talented people to miss out on the opportunity to play a key part in developing and innovating within the UK.