Attracting engineering talent

James Kenny
Head of global PR, Arup

Having originally trained as a civil engineer James has worked in engineering, publishing, politics, journalism and PR.  With a constant eye on the media landscape he has a unique perspective on how engineering is presented to the general public.

The media called it the “Brian Cox Effect”. And right up until some spoilsport pointed out that Prof Cox’s excellent series about the universe was broadcast well after the discovery that more young people were making the choice to study A-Levels in Maths, Science and Engineering, that was a great name for it.

Personally, I might keep calling it the Brian Cox effect, because frankly, calling it the “It’s really hard to distinguish yourself these days after decades of grade inflation so I’d better study the ‘hard’ subjects if I want to get into the college of my choice” effect is a bit of a mouthful.

Of course, I could be just as wrong as the media. It could be the “Dyson Effect” – although in which case, why not sooner? It could be the “Gates / Jobs / Page / Brin / Zuckerburg Effect” (delete to preference) as more young people realise they don’t have to be property developers with bad hair and dubious fashion sense to become billionaires.

It could be the “SurAlan Backlash Effect”. Or it could just be the “Geek Effect” as the tank tops, sensible cardigans and clear-glass glasses worn by every band from Weezer and the Eels to Noah and the Whale makes the fans feel it is necessary to study something ‘serious’ to go with their musical look.

On the whole, it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that we have more people studying maths, science and engineering. Maths A-level candidates are up 57% on 2005 and the sciences up 17% over the same period.

This is important, because the “Brian Cox Effect” means the industry has an opportunity – a real chance to attract far more of the highest calibre entrants into the sector,The question is, how are we going to make the most of it? How do we ‘sell’ engineering as a career choice?


Well, like cat-skinning, there are a hundred ways to do it. But since we don’t have all day, here’s a few thoughts.

One – don’t be complacent. Some people may think that with jobs difficult to come by these days graduates should be grateful for any opportunity, but the best companies know that attracting the best talent is always a battle.

So think about your USP with graduates and potential engineers as much as you would for your latest product or service. Think about how you will sell your company. Set out plans for career development; education; international placements; mentoring schemes; and secondments. Not just paying lip service to the idea of a career, but fully engaging with properly funded, structured programmes.

Like most people in work, more young people recognise that they will probably have a ‘portfolio career’. So why not sell that as a strength too? Successful engineers rarely end up doing just engineering. As they move up the ladder and have to get to grips with accounts, marketing, business development and finance, they broaden their outlook and opportunities as managers.

We already know that other sectors such as finance or accountancy are keen to snap up talented, numerate people who can think in a straight line. And inevitably, engineering is going to lose a proportion of good people to other professions. But rather than try to hold back the tide in a multi-skilled, portfolio career world, go with the flow and use those opportunities as a way of getting talent through the door and then work hard to keep them.

Lastly, a key point is that huge numbers of young people are inspired by the opportunity to make the world a better, greener place. At Arup, our corporate mission is to “shape a better world” and we have long found this aspect of the firm is something that prospective employees find particularly enticing.

Of course, Arup is in a somewhat unique situation as we are owned in trust by our employees, so we have a greater scope for pursuing our mission rather than short-term shareholder returns. However, that does not mean that other engineering firms can’t claim to be making the world a better place.

Not only do engineers stand a much better chance of actually shaping a better world than bankers, lawyers, accountants, politicians or philosophers, but science and engineering provide the basic toolkit needed to understand how to do it in the first place.

It’s not easy to snap up the best talent. But neither is it impossible. The sector has an opportunity to make a talent grab. And if we are forward thinking enough, we might even find the people we need to put engineering back on its pedestal as the real long-term engine for growth in the economy.