I was delighted to attend an event at the University of Portsmouth on 24th October entitled ‘Future Engineers – Engineering the Future’, hosted by the IMechE. Discussing the impact of engineering to society as a whole, and the risks and issues facing the profession, the event set out to explore the importance of nurturing engineers who will be the lifeblood of the profession’s future. It attracted eminent speakers – Dr Rhys Morgan, Director of Engineering Education at the Royal Academy of Engineering, The Right Honourable David Willetts MP (Havant) and Dr Colin Brown, IMechE Director of Engineering – and I wanted to share some of their thoughts in today’s blog.
Firstly, Dr Rhys Morgan highlighted the hidden contribution of engineers to society (so much more than many people think!), building the world around us and using science to solve real societal problems. Engineers, he said, were central to the economy and to driving innovation and growth.
As such, there is a great need to support the formation of the next generation of engineers in the UK. Yet, he said, the skills pipeline shrinks dramatically at an early age. There are, on average, 650,000 pupils in schools in England, of which 300,000 will get GCSEs in science and maths and 28,000 will go on to achieve an A level in maths and physics, prerequisites for an engineering career. 14,000 will study engineering in higher education – a figure that has remained largely static – and, as a result, just 8-9,000 graduates will advance into professional engineering roles. Unemployment for graduates, especially those of ethnic origin, remains a real issue; although there is evidence that engineering students do better than those in all other subjects when it comes to getting a job within six months of graduation.
Dr Morgan gave his opinion of the key issues that will need to be addressed in order to boost these statistics and the pipeline of professional engineers. Firstly, he said, there is a need to address common public perceptions that engineers simply ‘fix your car or boiler’. Next, we have to ensure that there’s a sufficient supply of skilled teachers who enthuse young people to follow engineering disciplines (many generalist teachers are not trained or equipped to do so), whilst current curricula and assessment processes don’t cultivate the kind of characteristics that engineers need. Employer engagement was also highlighted: in countries like Germany and France, companies get involved in teaching pupils but in the UK we don’t do this. Careers guidance needs serious improvement as does a focus on vocational training through apprenticeships. Dr Morgan was very supportive of the Government’s drive to increase participation in apprenticeships – but highlighted that the majority of these were in business, administration, health, public services, retail and commercial sectors rather than in engineering.
David Willetts MP added to Dr Morgan’s concerns with his thoughts on gender inequality in the profession, suggesting that, if we really want to increase the flow of engineers, we need to be far better at achieving a gender balance. The number of registered female engineers in the UK is very low indeed at just 6% of the total (worse than other developed countries).
So, why is it that we have particularly poor performance of encouraging women into engineering? The evidence is that girls in their teens who are interested in sciences are interested in medicine. A key feature of the English education system is that we expect people at age of 16 to make very big decisions about what to specialise in and girls interested in medicine tend to do biology, chemistry and maths. Yet, there’s a cap on the number of people that can train as doctors – far lower than the number of applicants – so there’s a real need to widen aspirations for those who are good at sciences. Mr Willetts commented that just 25% of the girls that get an A* in their physics GCSE will go on to take it at A level, so perhaps there needs to be a more flexible university recruitment process which enables students to get up to speed with physics in the first year.
Mr Willetts also spoke about teaching resources, saying that he believed that UK universities weren’t sufficiently equipped to offer practical experience. German student engineers would have already been working with equipment expected in the workplace by the time they graduate, but this is not the case in Britain. So, there’s a real need to increase the resource per student (the £9,000 university fees give universities the funds to do this without fear of losing grants). In addition, the Chancellor has provided £2million funding for education in engineering to enable teaching on the most up-to-date equipment.
Finally, Mr Willetts turned his attention to what can be done to ensure that the labour market functions efficiently. He suggested that universities could fund corporate and business partners to give resources either in cash or in kind and demonstrate what they are doing to recruit women into engineering degrees. Further, he said that employers need to look at wages, since graduates will look at potential returns before making their career selection. Ultimately, if we want more engineers and fewer lawyers, we might expect the relative wages to reflect this.
Dr Colin Brown, IMechE Director of Engineering, brought the event to a close hosting a lively Q&A which delved deeper into the issues raised by these thought provoking presentations.
For more information about IMechE events, head to http://events.imeche.org/.