Women and ethnic minorities have vital roles, finds Robert Lea, Industrial Editor
The engineering profession is successfully giving birth to a new generation of talent but fears it is failing to attract enough young women, ethnic minorities and those from socially deprived areas. And it remains acutely aware that the industry is hung up about whether young engineers emerge through the graduate channel or through apprenticeships Those are the conclusions of some of Britain’s leading engineers who came together at the BAE Systems/ The Times round-table discussion on the exploitation and growth of the UK’s engineering capabilities.
“Enhancing the skills of the UK is a tricky and complicated problem,” he says. “The key challenge is to excite more young people about engineering as a rewarding, diverse career and to get that message to as many schoolchildren as possible. The future supply of engineering skills into the UK economy is key to what the department is seeking to deliver.”
One problem, however, may be the snobbery surrounding how engineers are educated.
Simon Howison, engineering projects director of BAE Systems, says: “There is for some people the artificial distinction: university or not. How many people do we need with a first class degree? What we actually need is to get the best people into engineering and that is a different question.”
Jo Lopes, head of technical excellence at Jaguar Land Rover, says: “There is a perception in this country that if you go down an academic route you succeed and if you go down a vocational route, you don’t. We need good people coming through both routes.”
Philip Greenish, chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering, believes there is a renaissance in the engineering technicians being fostered by the university technology colleges such as those backed by JCB, the digger manufacturer. “The JCB academy is astoundingly good, recruiting non-selectively from a wide area. Terms are longer, working days are longer. But they are heavily oversubscribed, amazingly well-equipped, the kids are highly-motivated and their results are astonishingly good. Yes, we need to get the balance between academics and vocationals right.”
Greenish believes that many of the post-1992 universities should return to their polytechnic roots in their provision of engineering education.
Educating an engineer does not come cheap, however. Professor Jeff Magee, dean of the faculty of engineering at Imperial College London, says: “An engineering education is a highly expensive business. It has been quoted that that sort of education is much more than the £9,000 fee charged and more like £15,000 to £16,000 compared with courses that have no need for expensive laboratory equipment.”
The industry itself may be at fault, according to Greenish. “The profession has a huge role to play,” he says. “We need to be far more coherent in our engagement with schools and there is a really important issue around diversity.
“We still have a paucity of women coming into engineering, for no good reason. Culturally, people in the education system still tend to guide young women away from engineering and technology careers. They are missing out on wonderful opportunities. The proportion of female undergraduates studying engineering has hardly changed in two decades.
“There are some ethnic communities in which it is socially acceptable to go into engineering and others who are hardly represented. The same applies in areas of social deprivation. That is the agenda which we must sort out.”
The Department for Business is well aware of the problem. “We are the worst in Europe for female participation and one of the key issues is around physics at A level, where female participation is very low,” Perkins says. “This is pretty well unique to this country.”
And there is an irony, he says. “A survey by Engineering UK found that the older our young women get, the more positive they feel toward engineering. By 20 or 21 they think that engineering might be a good career for them. Unfortunately by then they have made the wrong decisions in what they study.”
Lopes pointed to “leakage” in the educational process. “Someone who has studied engineering is extremely marketable because of the skill sets they have. As employers it is important to engage with undergraduates at the direct choice level, because the chaps over at Deloitte, or wherever, will be looking at exactly the same pool of people and attracting them with their stories.
“If we are not consistent and coherent in our explanation of the benefits of engineering and what it is like to be an engineer, then we will lose more people and women in particular. We have a story to tell. It is the reason why when people come into engineering we don’t see huge attrition rates: they are doing something they enjoy.”
Are we just too modest?
One of BAE Systems’ most senior executives fears Britain’s engineering manufacturers may have an Achilles’ heel: they are too British.
Leading the BAE Systems/The Times round-table on the UK’s engineering capabilities, Nigel Whitehead, group managing director of programmes and support at the defence giant, said that despite influencing 24 per cent of the economy, the UK’s engineering capability is not ambitious enough.
“Do we actually see ambition?” he asked. “If a company gets to a certain size and does not grow any further: why is that? Is it to do with our national modesty?
“Do people feel comfortable if others say they are going to double the size of their company in five years? The fear is that you might be thought of as brash and so I question the nature of our culture. Is there something intrinsically British about the inhibitors? Are we growing our smaller and medium- sized companies and realizing their potential? And could we do more to make Britain a destination? There needs to be a sense of purpose, a sense of what the nation is good at and to create ambition around that.
“Bits of the formula for the future are coming together, especially around technology strategy and aerospace, defence and automotive partnerships. These types of relationships are the connections that we need to make.”
Written by: Robert Lea, Industrial Editor, The Times