Engineering a more diverse future

The UK’s economic future depends on widening the engineering recruitment net. 

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The late Karen Spärck Jones, Professor of Computers and Information at Cambridge Computer Laboratory, was a vocal advocate for diversity in the computing sector who used to say “computing is too important to be left to men.”

As we move into a world of enhanced – and exciting – technological capabilities I would extend Spärck Jones’ comment to encompass the engineering profession as a whole, not just computing, and to all dimensions of diversity, not just gender.

Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT) and engineering biology have the potential to significantly disrupt the UK’s engineering and manufacturing sectors and indeed the wider economy.

Ensuring that we recruit engineers and technicians from a wide range of backgrounds with the necessary skills to shape and interact with these technologies will be key to the UK fully realising the economic and social benefits of this paradigm.

However, we know from industry partners, professional institutions and the fellowship of our academy that there is a significant skills gap in engineering. The latest EngineeringUK State of Engineering report indicates that there is an annual demand for at least 124,000 engineers and technicians with core engineering skills, and an additional 79,000 roles that require some engineering knowledge and skills alongside other skill sets.

Worryingly, there is an annual shortfall of up to 59,000 engineering graduates and technicians to fill these roles and almost half of engineering companies say that a shortage of skilled people is already having a significant impact on their productivity and growth.

One reason for the UK’s shortage of technical talent is that many people hold outdated views of what engineering is, and what engineers do. So we have launched a new, multi-year digital campaign called This is Engineering to challenge those misconceptions by presenting a positive image of modern engineering in all its breadth and vibrancy.

Developed with EngineeringUK and industry partners, it uses digital advertising to reach teenagers and those who influence their career choices, including parents and teachers. The campaign is a major part of the Academy’s contribution to the government’s Year of Engineering.

Crucially, This is Engineering takes a marketing-led approach – drawing on the expertise of those who market brands to young people through the social media channels they use day in, day out – and is rooted in research with young people into what their current perceptions are and how they decide their futures.

In the shape of real young engineers from a range of backgrounds, the campaign illustrates how engineering is behind many of the things teenagers are already interested in – sport, fashion and tech, for example – and shows how they can follow what they love into engineering, and in doing so help shape the future. The campaign has got off to a great start: since launching in January, the videos have been viewed over 13m times by a teenage audience that is roughly gender balanced and we are now in the process of casting the next wave of videos.

I feel very strongly that attracting more diverse talent into engineering, and creating a workforce that better reflects the diversity of society, will be essential if the future products and services that we are developing are to properly serve the needs of the people who use them.

The latest data suggests that just 12 per cent of the UK’s professional engineers and technicians are female, while only 15 per cent of those who achieve first degrees in engineering are female. In an academy study commissioned in 2016, the UK was placed a lowly 58th out of 86 countries for gender diversity among engineering graduates – in countries such as Malaysia it is not unusual to see engineering classes where women are in a majority at an undergraduate level. The situation with apprenticeships is even more stark. In 2015-16, just seven per cent of engineering-related apprenticeships were completed by women in England; in Scotland this was as low as three per cent.

It is a source of deep frustration that we find ourselves in this position in 2018 after decades of effort, but there are some glimmers of hope. Our analysis of women who graduate from engineering degrees shows that around the same proportion go into engineering jobs as men and in a survey of 7,000 UK engineers that we published last year we found that 87 per cent of women engineers said they would recommend engineering as a great career to friends and family, demonstrating that for those women that do pursue engineering careers it can be a very positive experience.

But diversity is not just about gender, and women are not the only group underrepresented in UK engineering. Less than eight per cent of professional engineers are from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, despite the fact that well over 20 per cent of engineering students are. And it is a particular source of concern that ethnic minority students are twice as likely to be unemployed six months after graduation than their white counterparts, even when the type of university and degree class are taken into account.

That’s why the academy has just launched a major new initiative, the Graduate Engineering Engagement Programme, through which we will work with engineering employers to bring a much more diverse range of engineering graduates into UK engineering jobs.

Expanding the talent pipeline into engineering is key, but so is ensuring that we create inclusive workplaces that are open and attractive to everyone, with progression systems that are fair and based on merit. Focusing on inclusion alongside diversity also enables those in the majority groups to feel that they can fully contribute to and benefit from these changes. And that matters, because we will need everyone’s help if we are to finally move towards a truly diverse and inclusive profession that can attract, inspire and retain the best talent and, in so doing, unlock its potential to deliver social and economic impact that benefits all parts of society.

Hayaatun Sillem is chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering.