Comment: Engineering recruitment must challenge unconscious bias

The engineering industry’s skills and diversity problem could be solved by challenging

unconscious bias in the recruitment process, says Natalie Desty, Director of STEM Returners.

The Royal Academy of Engineering has estimated that UK engineering employers need to recruit 182,000 engineers annually to keep up with demand and suggested that firms need to double its recruitment of graduates and apprentices to meet the shortfall.

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But there is a hidden workforce with thousands of talented professionals who could help potentially solve this skills gap and the lack of diversity across the industry, but they are being overlooked every day.

This hidden workforce are the thousands of engineering and STEM professionals who have had a career break.

These talented, educated and dedicated people find it incredibly difficult to get a job and are the victims of outdated recruitment methods that prevent them from getting an interview, let alone being offered the role.

The recent STEM Returners Index, our annual survey of a nationally representative group of over 750 STEM professionals who are on a career break and attempting to return to work or recently returned, revealed that unconscious bias during the recruitment process was the main barrier they felt prevented them from gaining employment.

Respondents felt they experienced bias in recruitment processes due to a number of reasons. Overall 40 per cent said they experienced bias due to lack of recent experience, while 37 per cent felt they experienced bias due to their age.

Welcoming back mid-career professionals requires challenging the unconscious bias of the hiring community

Sadly, gender and ethnicity were also perceived as a barrier. In the survey, 22 per cent of respondents said felt they experienced bias in recruitment processes due to their ethnicity, while 27 per cent of female respondents said they felt they have personally experienced bias due to their gender compared to 8 per cent of men.

Additionally, 66 per cent of BAME respondents said they are finding it difficult or very difficult to return to work, compared to 57 per cent white British respondents.

This negatively contributes to an industry, which already has a concerning lack of diversity. Currently, just only one-in-ten engineers are female and BAME engineers make up just seven percent of the UK’s workforce, despite making up 27 per cent of graduates.

Why is it, that these people are being overlooked? Surely, they could be the key to sourcing diverse talent and boosting a skilled workforce?

But welcoming back mid-career professionals requires challenging the unconscious bias of the hiring community and recruitment supply chain, as well as changing internal culture to provide a more inclusive environment.

With the pandemic forcing us to think about how we recruit new talent, now is the perfect time to rip up the outdated rule book, which fails businesses and candidates alike.

Image by RAEng_Publications from Pixabay

There is a perception that a career break automatically leads to a deterioration of skills. But the reality is, that many people on a career break keep themselves up to date with their industry, are able to refresh their skills easily when back in work and have developed new transferable skills that would actually benefit their employers.

STEM organisations are clearly missing a major opportunity to get highly skilled, talented people – particularly women and ethnic minority groups – back into the industry.

By updating traditional standardised recruitment methods that search for the ‘unicorn’ candidate and challenging unconscious biases, the UK engineering sector could potentially become the example for others to follow in the search for diversity and inclusion.

Change is happening but slowly. We are proud to be making a difference and working with some leading engineering and STEM organisations to implement Returner Programmes but more needs to be done to change a culture that still views career breaks negatively instead of a completely normal part of many people's working life.

The UK needs more STEM organisations, industry leaders and hiring managers to take note and think more broadly about how they access this hidden talent pool, giving talented professionals a fair chance.

Collectively we should not stop until we’ve created a level playing field for returners, put an end to unconscious bias in recruitment processes, and removed the hidden barriers returners face today.

International Women in Engineering Day – June 23 – is an awareness campaign to raise the profile of women in engineering and focuses attention on the amazing career opportunities available to girls in this exciting industry. It also celebrates the outstanding achievements of women engineers throughout the world. The event is organised by The Women’s Engineering Society.