How can we get more younger people into engineering?

Jon Lawson

In today’s rapidly changing world, engineers play an essential role in creating the solutions to key social, environmental and economic challenges. This has become especially apparent amidst the current coronavirus pandemic, which has seen some of the leading engineering companies come together to utilise their expertise to create more respirators, build new hospitals and produce more hand sanitisers as part of the national effort.

It is clear that we need good-quality engineers more than ever before, however they are in short supply. A recent report from EngineeringUK predicted an annual shortfall of up to 59,000 engineering graduates and technicians in Britain who are needed to fill core engineering roles. Diversity is another issue for the sector. The same report found that just eight per cent of the engineering workforce come from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds, and only 12 per cent are women. We need to do more to encourage these people to take an interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

What are the obstacles to engagement?

This is not to say that young people are not interested in building aircrafts, inventing new medicines or engineering skyscrapers. In fact, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (iMechE) found that 42 per cent of people aged 11-19 felt that making a difference and having a positive impact on the world is important when choosing a career.

So, what is missing? Part of the issue is a lack of understanding about what engineers do; something which is compounded by negative stereotypes and misconceptions of engineering as ‘too academic’, ‘dirty’ or a ‘boy’s subject’. As a result of this, engineering is perceived by certain groups as inaccessible. For young girls and those from BME or disadvantaged backgrounds, a lack of relatable role models makes it even harder for them to aspire to a career in the field.

A large proportion of children have already decided by the time they reach secondary school what career they wish to pursue and will have already formed their opinions on why other industries are ‘not for them’. Indeed, limited access to engineering knowledge and STEM-based activities in the classroom can make the difference for a child who might have had a fledgling interest in engineering. As an industry we must be inspiring and equipping young people from all backgrounds to achieve their full potential in engineering. This was the driving force behind the development of our Youth and STEM programme over 12 years ago; one of the first of its kind in the UK. By working together we can give children more hands-on opportunities to experience the real world of engineering and therefore dispel the negative misconceptions. Doing this as early as possible in a child’s education will help to ignite a passion for STEM and ensure they feel confident and capable to pursue engineering as a career, if they desire. 

How to engage young people of all backgrounds

Our collective resources and expertise as a sector is one of the best tools at our disposal for reaching out and engaging more young people, which is why partnerships can be so effective. We began working with children’s education charity, The Smallpeice Trust, to deliver residential courses and STEM awareness days which bring engineering to life for young people.

The Smallpeice Trust shares our goals of raising aspirations and equal representation in engineering, helping us to create practical experiences which make all young people feel included in, and excited about STEM. This is also why our courses and event days are aimed at children between 9 and 14 years old. Through providing engineering-based opportunities early on and at regular intervals throughout a child’s education, we can dispel the myths and help students sustain their passion for engineering into later life.

The residential courses are delivered over five days on an RAF base and give students exposure to a range of engineering specialisations from learning about logistical support and the trade-off between fuels and weights, to mechanical engineering, coding and robotics-based activities. Students experience the reality of an engineer’s day-to-day and get to work on real-life projects, building up valuable STEM skills in the process. Beyond this, students learn other important life skills such as teamwork, creative thinking and financial management. Ultimately the residential courses allow students to test their abilities and experience the challenges and rewards of the industry for themselves.

We have a legacy of brilliant female engineers in Britain and today we are proud to have a growing number of women in the RAF. This includes the UK’s first three-star female military officer and engineer, an achievement only awarded to those who have made an outstanding contribution in their field. Society is waking up to the vital roles that women play in STEM however female engineering role models are still not visible enough when compared to the male engineers being taught in schools. How can we expect girls or BME students to feel confident in engineering if they cannot see anyone who shares their background or experience? This is why exposure to RAF professionals from all backgrounds is a key element of our residential courses. Students get to work alongside some of our senior female leaders and hear their experiences, watching them climb inside a Typhoon jet or work on communications infrastructure in the operations room. There is no reason why a girl should feel less capable of working in engineering and shining a light on the inspiring female and BME role models doing great things in the industry will help us to prove the point.

Geography also plays a key role in young people’s access to a good quality STEM education and so going directly into schools up and down the country helps us to engage more girls and students from disadvantaged or BME backgrounds, who might otherwise have felt cut off from the world of engineering. Our partnership with The Smallpeice Trust enables us to target schools in remote rural regions and disadvantaged communities to deliver STEM activity days. Students work in teams on an engineering-based challenge, such as building a powered glider, where they can put their scientific knowledge and creative abilities to the test. Making sure these interventions are accessible to all young people is the key to raising engineering aspirations and creating a more diverse, talented workforce for the future.  

Sparking a passion for engineering can be achieved through one course or STEM activity day, but to truly nurture a child’s curiosity and self-belief requires multiple interventions. This is the key to transforming an interest in STEM into a desire to work in the industry. For boys and girls considering a career in engineering, the Arkwright Engineering Scholarships programme provides leadership and confidence training for students, giving them exposure to practical engineering at a more complex scale.

As an industry, we have a responsibility to improve diversity and ensure that young people from all backgrounds feel empowered to pursue their passion in engineering. Providing more hands-on experiences for children from a young age is necessary to make engineering accessible and attainable for girls and students from BME and disadvantaged backgrounds; otherwise we risk alienating future talented engineers. Partnerships which enable us to extend our resources and provide these experiences are vital to break down the barriers to entry.

The author is Russell Barnes, Wing Commander for the Royal Air Force.