What do young people really think about engineering?

Editor
The Engineer

Another week, and another unsettling survey of young peoples’ attitudes to engineering has landed on our desks.

The latest offering in this crowded field is from multinational food manufacturer Mondelez (owner of Cadbury, Oreo and Kraft, amongst others) which has quizzed 1,600 16-to-18 year olds on their attitudes to manufacturing.

The headline figures are predictably concerning. Apparently only eight per cent of those surveyed would consider a career in manufacturing, 73 per cent think that a desk job would be more likely to impress their parents, and, perhaps most worryingly, two thirds don’t  believe there are many jobs available in the sector. The tenor of the findings is broadly consistent with other reports, and tallies with the noises coming from industry, but there are some key statistical variations with other industry snapshots.

For instance, according to Engineering UK, one of the most comprehensive and reliable sources of industry facts and figures, 38 per cent of 12 to 16 year olds see engineering careers as desirable, a figure which, according to the Mondelez survey, falls to eight per cent in the 16-to-18 age bracket. The association also points to a doubling in the number of young people who understand what engineers do – an upbeat assessment at odds with the mood of the latest report.

Though useful bellwethers of attitudes, reports of this kind can often be taken with a pinch of salt. The sample groups are typically fairly small, we don’t always know how the questions were phrased, whether the groups account for regional variations, and what the participants were told about the survey. All of these subtle variables – and many others – can have an impact on the  results.

What’s more, the language used to present the results is also significant. 45 per cent of youngsters not knowing anything about manufacturing sounds worrying. But 55 per cent of youngsters having a grasp of what this key sector’s all about is, we would suggest, a reasonably promising starting point.

Mondelez’ findings offer an interesting snapshot – and will add to the level of background chatter on a topic which we all agree is important. But small scale surveys of this kind are only ever going to be of limited use.

To get a really clear sense of what’s going on we need a coherent and consistent nationwide survey, carefully shaped by input from industry, educators and government and based on the attitudes of hundreds of thousands of school children, not a small, possibly unrepresentative handful.

Only then will we be able to build up a true picture of where engineering stands in the eyes of youngsters, and properly get to grips with the challenge of enthusing them about the opportunities in the sector.