When unfamiliarity breeds contempt

Most young people don’t know much about engineering – and the less they know, the more they think it’s boring, according to a MORI poll out today.

Seven out of 10 children of secondary school age say they know either not very much or nothing at all about engineering. And when boys and girls are looked at separately, it emerges that eight out of 10 girls say they have little or no knowledge of the profession. Only 4% of girls say they are likely to consider engineering as a career.

Over half of all children still associate engineering with a dirty working environment; two fifths think it will offer interesting work, but only a third associate it with good pay.

These disturbing findings are from the latest poll carried out by MORI for the Engineering and Marine Training Association. The survey is carried out at two-yearly intervals to track attitudes to, and knowledge of, the engineering profession among school children.

There appears to be no evidence of any improvement in the standing of engineering since the last survey in 1998, or, indeed, 1996. The worrying implication is that high-profile initiatives, such as the Year of Engineering Success, are making little headway, or that the profession is having to run to stand still.

Though engineering is strongly associated in schoolchildren’s minds with transport and high technology, these associations are not being translated into career aspirations.

On a positive note, the survey provides some pointers as to where effective action might be taken. Engineering remains popular as a career boys say they will consider. The continuing lack of appeal to girls, though worrying, seems to have nothing to do with perceptions of sex discrimination. And the association between engineering and a dirty working environment is beginning to decline, though slowly.

Ignorance fuels misconceptions

The key problem is a lack of exposure to effective information, with children’s resulting ignorance about engineering fuelling misconceptions, suggests MORI.’There is a strong relationship between knowledge of engineering and its perceived attractiveness as a career,’ says the report. Over half those who say they know a great deal about engineering and two fifths of those who say they know a fair amount are likely to consider a career in the industry. But the number who say they know at least a fair amount about engineering has dropped by five percentage points since the last survey in 1998.

When children were asked to select two possible jobs from a list of 20, professional engineer trailed behind lawyers, teachers, accountants and doctors. However, among boys, the career was ranked relatively higher, being chosen by 13% of respondents – putting engineering in the top quartile of career choices.

But fewer than 0.5% of the girls listed engineer as a preferred job. Their most popular choices were vet, teacher, lawyer and nurse.

The reason for this could be a perception that engineering does not offer the qualities girls consider important in a job. The top three attributes respondents to the survey sought in a job were good pay, interesting work and responsibility.

Only a third of children associate engineering with good pay, but this perception is stronger among boys than girls by a margin of 41% to 25%. Similarly, while two fifths of children overall associate engineering with interesting work, boys holding this opinion outnumber girls by a factor of two to one (54% to 27%).

‘Lack of knowledge about engineering is a key barrier to enhancing the image of the sector,’ says MORI. Over half those who say they knew nothing about engineering also think it is boring, compared to 11% of those who say they know a great deal about it.

Girls are also less likely to think it necessary to be clever to do engineering – in other words, they associate it with unskilled work. But girls are more likely to disagree with the view that engineering is a job mainly for men, suggesting that perceived sex discrimination is not a barrier.

Lack of knowledge about engineering is compounded by a mismatch between what children say are their main channels of information and the most useful ones. The three most common sources of information about engineering were parents and guardians, television, radio and careers teachers.

Parents may have a positive influence: only 29% of those receiving information from parents agreed that engineering was boring, compared to 36% overall.

When asked what was the most useful source of information, pupils most commonly cited work experience or a visit to an engineering company, followed by parents and then careers advisers.

Boys were more likely to have obtained information from careers teachers or advisers than girls and were more likely to have visited a company or undertaken a period of work experience.

However, those who received information about engineering from careers advisers were less likely to regard it as interesting work than those getting their information from parents, work experience, or radio and television.

‘This suggests the sector needs to be more actively promoted in careers literature and among careers professionals,’ concludes MORI.

Engineering was widely seen as important to new technology and computers, transport and to respondents’ day-to-day life in general. Its connections with looking after the environment were less strong.

However, this importance ‘is not translated into appeal as a career. These links need to be capitalised on,’ says MORI.

Campaign for awareness

Emta is already acting to build on the survey’s lessons. The main obstacle, MORI says, is that children do not associate engineering with factors they consider important in a job.

Pupils who are more exposed to engineering through school work are more likely to view it favourably, so greater prominence in the curriculum could help, says MORI, provided the teaching of technology-related subjects is undertaken in a way that emphasises the practical and creative aspects.

To address the unpopularity of the profession with girls, career literature should contain positive female role models. Promotional material needs to be targeted at younger children. Children at the age of 11 or younger are more likely to consider engineering than older children: by 14 they tend to have formed fixed impressions of what they’re interested in.

As many children as possible should be exposed to the sector through school visits or work experience, as this was considered the most useful source of information. ‘MORI research found employees, particularly those who enjoy the job, are the best advocates for their companies,’ says the report. ‘This should be harnessed by encouraging employees to give talks at schools and careers fairs.’

The survey was carried out among 126 middle and secondary state schools in England and Wales between 15 January and 15 February 2001. The age group was 11-16. One class at random was selected to complete questionnaires from each school. Questionnaires were obtained from 2,970 pupils.