There is a danger that many people reading this magazine will turn the page as soon as they see this article is about women in engineering. They may think “this isn’t my problem” or “I can’t do anything about it anyway”. Most will be male engineers – and they will be wrong on both counts.
The industry has been sounding alarm bells about the skills gap for a long time. “We anticipate an annual shortfall of between 37,000 and 59,000 engineering graduates and technicians to fill core engineering roles,” says Engineering UK’s State of Engineering report for 2018.
This massive shortfall can in large part be attributed to the fact that young women do not enter engineering roles at anything like the same rate as young men. This might seem good for male engineers – there will be a premium price for their engineering skills in a market that is crying out for them. However, the danger here is the classic boiled frog scenario, where the animal is so comfortable in a pan of rapidly warming water that it doesn’t react until it is too late.
The truth is that such large shortfalls in skilled staff cannot be sustained. The benefits for international engineering companies of being in the UK are being so eroded by the costs of a lack of workforce skills that over time they may move their operations to the many welcoming countries that have no such problems in providing skilled engineering workforces.
This is why men in the UK engineering sector need more women engineers. If women started to come into engineering at the same rates as men, the skills gap would close significantly and the threat of UK engineering operations moving overseas would be considerably reduced.
Challenge to male engineers
So, OK, it is a problem that affects you. But surely this is an issue for HR departments, for educators, for government? What can male engineers do to get more girls to consider engineering? Well, the evidence is that there is actually quite a lot that male engineers can do, both in their everyday lives and in specific initiatives.
Research at King’s College London has highlighted the importance of “science capital,” which means science-related knowledge, understanding, attitudes, behaviours and social contacts.
Working scientists and engineers are a key part of the environment in which young people gather knowledge and attitudes about careers. If a family contains STEM professionals, or has good friends who are STEM professionals, then the likelihood is that the young people in that family will have positive attitudes towards exploring STEM careers.
So male engineers have a role in being evangelists for their profession with their families and friends. Talk about what you do and why you enjoy it. Talk about how being an engineer, male or female, means that you can make a real difference to people’s lives across the world. There is great value in personal conversation. What you do is interesting, rewarding and valuable to society. Tell people about it.
There is also merit in supporting employers’ initiatives with schools. Adults who work as mentors on programmes helping young people to get a perspective on engineering careers typically say they get as much out of it as the youngsters.
Most companies now recognise that giving young people experiences of industry is worthwhile and easily accomplished by working with experts such as the charity EDT or the Industrial Cadets programme. If your company isn’t quite so enlightened yet, you can still contact EDT and ask to become a volunteer in one of our programmes.
Take action – recognise that it is your future that is involved here too, and don’t miss an opportunity to tell young women the positive story about engineering.
Find out more at etrust.org.uk/jobs, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. International Women in Engineering Day is on 23 June.
Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.