An environmental solution to the engineering skills gap

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Young women’s concern for the environment could be harnessed to help address the severe gender gap in engineering, says EngD student and prize-winning essayist Laura Pickard.

Engineering is vital to the UK economy, especially if growth is to be achieved. But as it stands, we do not have enough young people going into the field. It is not enough to increase the number of university places available, unless we also have bright young minds eager to fill them. We must ensure that teenagers, especially girls who are so under-represented at present, consider engineering an attractive and worthwhile career.

Many companies can recruit from abroad, but we should not squander our local talent. For our economy to grow, we must provide jobs and, equally importantly, people ready to do them.

In 2011/12, 26% of engineering graduates went on to non-STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers, breaking down to 35.8% of female graduates and 24.3% of male graduates. This is not intrinsically bad (although the gender difference is notable): engineering is of use in many areas outside the traditional STEM industries and varied career prospects help to recruit students in the first place. However, while this demonstrates the value of engineering, industry needs more graduate engineers.

In particular, the percentage of UK engineers who are female is woefully small: 8.7% in 2007, the worst in the EU. Women are half of the potential workforce; it’s ridiculous not to make the most of our talents.

Better links with industry throughout the higher education process are likely to help, as is recruiting from other related subjects. (The main discovery of my astrophysics MPhil was that, despite the fascination the stars hold for me, I missed practical work.) There needs to be funding for a large number of students on quality courses, with specialist modules, good careers advice and industrial experience to get them ready to innovate their way to a better economy.

But most importantly, there need to be eager young people to fill those university places. We have the talent; we just need to provide a reason to study engineering. Engineering graduates are expected to earn high salaries but students require more than pay to interest them in a career. Our university courses need to be filled with enthusiastic, talented young people who are keen to learn, and to become engineers.

In 2013, 25,317 boys and 6,599 girls took A-Level physics. Of those who achieve A*-C in GCSE physics, only 19% go on to take the A Level. Clearly we need to look at making physics more interesting and more relevant, particularly to girls.

It is a shocking statistic that in 2012, 49% of state funded, co-educational schools had no girls taking A-Level physics at all. The Institute of Physics recommend that schools monitor gender imbalance in all subjects and consider avoidance of stereotyping an important factor.

This is true not only in schools but in the home, as evidenced in the Perkins Report, showing parents are more likely to consider engineering a good career for their sons than for their daughters. Schools should talk to parents about engineering, to dispel the common misconceptions of axle grease and boiler servicing.

We must cast off the image problem by talking about engineering in a context that appeals to teenage girls. Personal recollections and discussions with a number of teachers come up with the same theme – the environment. Many girls feel strongly about topics like conservation, climate change and animal welfare.

Fortunately, this fits well with the often-stated aim to use more renewable energy and reduce our carbon footprint. Renewable energy, electric vehicles, sustainable product design, energy efficient buildings and infrastructure and all aspects of environmentally focused technology are of increasing importance- and inspiring to the new generation.

Teaching science through real world examples is more interesting than simply the dry facts. I recall studying topics as varied as sport, archaeology, space and sweets during physics A Level. So, at GCSE level and earlier, I urge teachers to talk in terms of environmentally friendly science. Tell students that to make a real difference, they need to develop new technologies. There’s no shortage of problems to solve. 

This is an edited version of the essay awarded first prize in the recent Engineering Professors’ Council student essay-writing competition. Laura Pickard is an EngD student with the University of Bristol and National Composites Centre, and a public outreach science communicator.