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Teenagers shun manufacturing for more 'glamorous' desk jobs

Years of effort from countless initiatives to attract young people into manufacturing have had little impact on their aspirations, at least according to a new survey.


Despite promotion of engineering and manufacturing with events like the Big Bang Fair, young people still highly favour careers in media or fashion.

Only eight per cent of the 1,600 school leavers who answered an online questionnaire for food manufacturer Mondelez International said they could see themselves working in the sector, compared to 26 per cent for marketing and media and 29 per cent for fashion and retail.

The relatively low enthusiasm could partly be down to a misplaced belief that the UK no longer has a manufacturing industry, with two-thirds (67 per cent) of respondents saying they do not think there are many jobs in the sector – despite claims from manufacturing firms that they are struggling to attract enough applicants to fill places.

But the image of manufacturing among 16-to-18 year-olds appears to play a larger role, with a large majority believing a desk job would be better paid (76 per cent), more glamorous (86 per cent)and more likely to impress their parents (73 per cent).

This lack of interest in manufacturing careers was being reflected by recruitment problems, said Verity O’Keefe, skills and employment policy advisor for the manufacturers’ organisation EEF.

‘Four in five of our members said they’ve had recruitment problems in the past 12 months, and half of those said this was due to a lack of applicants,’ she told The Engineer. ‘The fact that young people aren’t considering jobs in manufacturing is likely to play a role in that.’

However, the problem is not borne out by figures for apprenticeships. The National Apprenticeship Service recorded that in 2012 there were more than 11 times the number of applications than there were places for apprenticeships in manufacturing.

O’Keefe said that recruitment issues in manufacturing had now expanded from craft and technician roles into unmet demand for people in sales and marketing, R&D and management as companies began expanding again.

Paul Jackson of Engineering UK, the body tasked with promoting engineering to young people and which runs the Big Bang Fair, said there was evidence that young people’s awareness and appreciation of careers in the sector was growing.

Data from Engineering UK’s annual “brand monitor” survey showed the proportion of surveyed 17-to-19 year-olds who thought a career in engineering was desirable had risen from 31 per cent in 2010 to 43 per cent in 2012.

‘What we’re seeing as a result of the recession - the high profile of manufacturing, an understanding that rebalancing the economy towards core deliverables that manufacturing and engineering are so important for - is a growth in public awareness in what engineers do,’ said Jackson.


The Engineer’s view: Better careers advice is vital

As with all surveys based on the thoughts a few thousand people, we shouldn’t give too much weight to the news that 16-year-olds are more interested in media and fashion careers than manufacturing. For one thing, it would be far more surprising if it were the other way around.

But the survey does remind us of the continuing image and awareness problems that manufacturing and engineering in general suffer when it comes to attracting young people. Whether or not the sector has lots of jobs to fill now, it will need tens of thousands of new recruits in order to expand as we hope it will and to replace those older engineers who are heading for retirement.

EngineeringUK trumpets the success of its Big Bang Fair in changing young people’s opinions, but the reach of events like this is inevitably limited and the different initiatives out there can end up competing with each other. Without a coordinated effort to provide teenagers with decent careers advice, we’re unlikely to see much change in their understanding of the opportunities and benefits of jobs in modern manufacturing.

Unfortunately the government’s decision to devolve careers advice to schools without holding them accountable for their level of provision has led to what EEF’s Verity O’Keefe described as ‘a downward spiral’, and as Paul Jackson pointed out it has come with no extra funding. Not only has this meant most students getting a worse service but it also makes it harder for engineering firms to engage with young people, as schools are more interested in meeting exam targets.

Industry has a big role to play in promoting itself but unless companies have a channel through which to educate young people then the sector’s achievements will only ever be patchy at best.

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Readers' comments (17)

  • Such a shame.

    Pay always comes up as an issue.

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  • Interesting, considering that the vast majority of my professional career has been spent sitting at a desk - I haven't worked a machine since my training ended. Engineering is a profession of the brain, not necessarily of the hands. I do not take anything away from those engineers that are more hands-on - my point is that is not the defining role of an engineer, problem-solving is. Clearly this message is still being lost, as many experience days emphasise the making things, not the solving the problem set.

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  • I would question if at this stage we need more surveys. Perhaps if we had some better ideas or even theories of why children may not be that interested in Engineering and manufacturing based on what has changed especially culturally over the period from the second world more we may make some progress.

    For example and to be brief, engineering is a grown up and Adult discipline and career. Since the 60s in the UK we have seen the rise of the cultural ‘industries’ from being a ‘rock/pop/hiphop’ star to becoming a media/PR professional. Even design has moved from engineering design to industrial design to also include graphic design with more contact with customers. Easy as it is for older people to knock these industries – young people can feel (and expect) to work in jobs where ‘play’ is a large component of their working day/life. Software Engineering for example fits into that framework.

    My point here is that both young professionals expect their work life to have a larger component of ‘play’ than previous generations ,and also there is the connected expectation for adolescence to extend further into adult hood – adult hood is postponed today. If that theory holds up then, it is not surprising when engineering – as I said an adult subject – requiring hard work to train for – and perhaps less than a ‘rock star’ life style based around tech city-roundabout to work on day by day, is not the most attractive ‘life style’ choice at 14-18.

    Solutions – not easy – perhaps we could start by Adults making a case for being adults and instead of pandering to young people’s life style ambitions, we point out that it was the back room Boys (and in the future Girls) that designed and built Concorde and got us to the moon- just as David Bowie started singing about Space.

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  • Given the outmoded hard hat or overalls image of engineering perhaps 16 year olds think that they will have more chance to log onto 'Facebook' if sat at a computer!
    This is not just cynical diatribe - I have friends who have managerial positions at call centres and in local government who frequently have to discipline young workers for their addictive abuse of the internet connection.

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  • Conflating the words manufacturing and engineering isn't helpful when we struggle to establish the concept of engineering in the minds of youngsters. When I talk to my children's friends about what I do (design aeroplanes) they think it is much more glamorous than being an accountant but even within the business, if we don't connect the activities of the day with the flight of the aircraft then they are mundane. All that time learning to play the guitar isn't galmorous until the rocjk star is standing on stage and yet people glamorise any association with such events (like providing the drinking water for the dressing room). I think we engineers need to get on the front foot and point to the fantastic structure, the leading edge aircraft, the F1 car and tell people that they can be part of creating the reality of the future.

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  • Being one of many engineering students I can say that what initially attracted me to the field was the extreme examples of sci&tech. Jet fighters, skyscrapers & moon rockets preceded a passion for the field itself just as superstars precede a passion for acting in others.

    It may be unrealistic for a teenager to want to be Gok Wan but it is a starting point as their interests in the field grow. We cant all be top designers (proper design not fashion :P ) but pointing to a eurofighter & saying somebody did that would do wonders to shake off the car mechanic/sky dish fitter image engineering sometimes has.

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  • Although I agree with a lot of the comments here, and in particlar Paul Reeves comments on the element of 'play' in our youths perception of a working day, I think we have to look at our own history to understand what is going on. The playful bit of a lot of historic engineering came from the motor car and individuals working to keep them running and repaired. Fathers and sons worked together and the car was seen as a status symbol, something aspirational, therefore as the motor industry grew from the end of WW2 engineering to a great extent was introduced to many as a practical science. Motor racing was an amateur environment with no formal means of entry and everything was possible and accessible. As the motor car has declined into a commodity and people simply don't do their own maintenance, a valuable stream of influence has been eliminated. Motor sport itself is the domain of the wealthy, there are engineering courses in motorsport now that means you just don't get into a professional team without qualifications. And whilst this doesn't explain the decline in its entirity, the fiddling and messing about in ones spare time is more likely to be done on a PC; Installing and experimenting with software and components, sound and graphics cards, home networks etc. So is it any surprise the move is from engineering as we perceive it into computer based engineering/science.

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  • We have to remove careers advice from teachers, to start with. Whilst there are exceptions, most teachers left school, went to uni or teacher training college, then back to school to teach. At no point have they acquired any serious understanding of careers other than teaching!
    What is required is specialist careers advisers who have a grasp of the wide range of opportunities available.
    In the meantime, perhaps a few TV series showing the 'problem solving' nature of engineering, presented by an engineer or scientist with charisma.

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  • @ Graham Field

    I think you would have to compete against the Physics & Chemistry proponents for air time, they are also suffering a decline in candidates. Much of the problem is cyclical though. As the 'glamour' jobs begin to lose their sparkle coming generations of parents will encourage their children into careers other than Media or Design as the careers and fortunes they expected turn out to be considerably less than they expected. Having said all that, I have a friend who was a humble graphic designer when he left College, now a Director of one of the world's leading advertising agencies. And whilst the perception is that he doesn't 'make' anything, his influence, creativity and analysis generates industrial activity by selling goods on behalf of clients.

    The age old problem of people going into teaching, and many other jobs, and hiding for their entire careers whilst handing out careers advice will never go away. It's like recruiting Police Officers straight from school or university; they can't possibly understand what goes on in the real world because they have never lived in it. But that accusation could be levelled ant anyone who has gone on to exploit a degree whilst never operating in any other environment. Should engineers be exposed to working life in, say, marketing before being allowed to work as an engineer, and vice versa?

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  • You can hardly blame young people for wanting jobs in other sectors. Their peer groups of just a year older, are earning more money that an engineer would after studying for a degree and since we have an industry that wants a degree as a minimum for any job in engineering, the young go and get any other job that pays real money. We have an industry that does not value its engineers, and at each downturn, they are the first to go, whilst keeping the office staff. Why would any young person want a job that has a small starting salary, no long term job prospect and will put them into debt for many years ?

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