Blog: Diverse routes can lead to diverse engineers

It’s time to step up our efforts to encourage young people from underrepresented groups to consider a career in engineering, writes Engineering UK chief executive Dr Hilary Leevers.

Following hot on the heels of National Apprenticeships Week and International Women’s Day earlier this month, I’ve been thinking about what the engineering community can do to improve the balance between male and female apprentices across the UK and the urgency of doing so.

We know from our 2019 research report ‘Gender disparity in engineering’ that female under-representation in the engineering workforce is largely due to girls dropping out of educational pathways at every decision point, despite generally performing at least as well as boys in STEM subjects at school.

The pattern is even more pronounced for apprenticeships with just 1 in 10 of those on engineering-related apprenticeships being female.

In an industry that already has a gender imbalance issue, with only 12% of the workforce identifying as female, it seems the pandemic has deepened gender differences in career aspirations in engineering or technology for young people.

diverse engineers
Image: This Is Engineering

Our recent survey, Young people and Covid-19 suggests that existing gender differences in career aspirations are becoming more entrenched, with a higher proportion of female than male respondents saying they would be more likely to work in healthcare because of the pandemic (29% v 18%) and a higher proportion of male than female young people saying they’d be more likely to work in engineering (17% v 12%) or technology (23% v 18%).

We did not have a large enough sample to see if other stereotyped career aspirations were also accentuated, but I’m concerned that this is a risk, that young people may be reverting to perceived norms as a safer career choice at a time of crisis, and that there have been fewer opportunities to meet diverse role models or have inclusive careers experiences that could have disrupted stereotypical thinking.

We’ve created platforms to help the engineering community and educators reach young people with effective careers engagement as we know that young people who have taken part in a STEM careers activity are three times more likely to consider a career in engineering. The research mentioned earlier also helps us see what they are prioritising – job availability and security alongside careers with enormous societal value – to help frame the careers messages.

The new Tomorrow’s Engineers website is packed with careers resources and advice to help organisations planning or delivering engineering engagement activities. We’ve drawn together content from across the sector to help us all improve our practice.

To help teachers and educators navigate the various offers, we launched Neon, a digital platform that gives them easy access to quality online and offline engineering outreach activities, bringing brilliant STEM careers to life. With the support of the engineering community, Neon empowers teachers with the tools they need to engage young people in a career in the engineering sector, which makes up nearly 20% of the workforce.

Neon offers a growing list of over 80 in-class, online and external experiences. Everything from tackling real-world engineering problems in class, or live online sessions to create a future city, to creating virtual racing cars. There’s even a collection of lessons for challenging perceptions to help teachers demystify engineering and enable young people from all walks of life to defy stereotypical views of who can become an engineer – just in time for International Women’s Day.

We also have a range of careers resources designed to be easily accessed online including useful content about apprenticeships. It’s important that young people understand that there are multiple pathways to a successful, satisfying engineering and technology career. One way to communicate this is for young people to hear from young apprentices – who better than Allanah or Imogen to explain why earning while learning was a better option for them, and could be for others too?

The engineering community alongside other influencers like parents, carers, teachers and other educators is an important player in achieving the collective impact that’s necessary to see more and more diverse young people entering engineering.

Occasions like International Women’s Day and National Apprenticeships Week provide perfect opportunities for us to celebrate our current role models and create new ones.