Gender balance can bridge engineer talent gap

It’s widely accepted that the UK is suffering from a chronic shortage of engineering skills.

It’s widely accepted that the UK is suffering from a chronic shortage of engineering skills.

There are around 400,000 engineer roles unfilled nationwide, with a sizeable chunk of this shortfall in Scotland, according to the Scottish National Investment Bank.

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And there is not just a lack of talent in the industry, but a gender imbalance, too.

According to the Engineering UK 2017/2018 report, fewer than 8 per cent of practicing engineers in the country are female. If we are to overcome this skills shortage, this has to change. It is up to education institutions and businesses to work together to encourage more women into a career in engineering.

At Fife College, there are three core areas we are focusing on to achieve this. These are starting from a grass roots level, creating partnerships with industry, and investing in apprenticeships.

We are up against what appears to be deep rooted societal and parental views on what a career in engineering for girls actually involves, with many having a very traditional view that it’s all about adjustable spanners and oily rags. The reality, of course, is that with the increasing use of technology, the sector is transforming in so many ways.

This perception has to change to catch up with the truth, which means adopting a new approach at a grass roots level. If we are to spark the imagination in preschool and primary school children that engineering is a rewarding career choice, schools must be better equipped and better informed in order to teach, inspire and encourage the next generation of engineers.

Universities and colleges will also need to work much more closely with schools in this regard. This is why Fife College has a team of two full-time Stem (science, technology, engineering, maths) education officers who run an extensive Engineering for Girls programme across schools in Fife and beyond with pupils aged P6 – S6. Only by igniting and sustaining an interest in Stem from an early age can we hope to overcome the skills shortage and encourage more women into engineering.

This is where creating partnerships with industry comes in to play. It’s not just down to gaps in education; employers need to better plan for their workforce of the future. Businesses need to assess what skills they require and better communicate this with colleges and universities, so that we can ensure courses are designed with these specific skills in mind.

One of the best ways to do this is to enter into partnerships with key players in the industry. At Fife College, we have partnered with Shell to run a comprehensive skills course for S4 girls. Shell sponsors four young women to gain a qualification in Skills for Work: Energy at SCQF Level 5, which includes learning and industrial visits to Shell facilities in Aberdeen and Fife.

To date, more than 80 female students have taken part in the programme, providing an introduction to the sector for the participants and possible future recruitment opportunities for Shell. More schemes of this nature need to be introduced across Scotland in order to better connect college and university students with potential employers.

This leads onto the final of the three core areas of focus, investing in apprenticeships. Schools often focus too much on promoting a university education as the only route into a career in engineering, but this is simply not true.

Employers in the engineering sector value practical skills alongside qualifications and so there is a real opportunity for businesses to work with their local schools and colleges to offer work experience placements and apprenticeships to students.

As with the college-level skills programme, the benefits are twofold: they provide the employer with access to a potential pool of talent that they could tap into and help nurture, while students gain first-hand experience and exposure of what a career in engineering actually involves, thereby encouraging a greater number of young people to see it as a viable career option.

Things may hopefully be starting to move in the right direction. Announcements such as ScotRail appointing Syeda Ghufran as engineering director earlier this year, the first woman in the role, are a welcome step. National Women in Engineering Day, which launched for the first time in 2014, is also gaining momentum. But there is more to be done.

We must work together to change the current perceptions of the sector, to inspire more interest in Stem subjects among girls from a young age and to increase the number of apprenticeships and work experience placements available to our young people.

Only by building stronger partnerships between education and industry can we hope to address the ever-widening skills gap and gender imbalance in engineering.

Nicky Inglis is head of engineering technologies and mathematics at Fife College.