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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