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Nick Russell, director of Thomasons civil and structural engineering consultancy, discusses the need to inspire the next generation of young engineers and how engineering must be better understood to close the skills gap…
As students work studiously towards the end of the first term, whether in the midst of GCSE studies or A levels, this is a time to pause and appreciate the value of engineering. The sixth annual Tomorrow’s Engineers Week was an exciting reminder to students, parents and STEM professionals alike that no matter one’s interests, they can be relevant to engineering.
Sports enthusiasts can look to world famous stadiums. Musicians have sprawling stages and theatres, designed to captivate and inspire. Bridges, which span impressive distances and sometimes appear to even defy gravity, will appeal to those who appreciate a combination of artistic and engineering form. Whether a student aspires to be surrounded by nature’s grandeur or prefers a bustling urban landscape, wants to start from scratch or to improve what already exists, engineering provides a way forward.
As students start thinking about joining the workforce, their enthusiasm and skill sets will be sought after by employers on the lookout for bright young employees to help their organisation thrive. In a time of political and economic uncertainty, it is crucial for British businesses have access to a robust and ready recruitment pool.
Unfortunately, the media rhetoric of a growing ‘skills gap’ is only growing louder, highlighting the ever-increasing gulf between businesses’ requirements and the abilities of entry-level candidates. One must ask: why is this the case and what can be done?
From personal experience, I have found that society, at large, does not fully understand the function and role of engineering. Too often have I spoken with children and parents who think we mend photocopiers and washing machines and that the build environment is solely constructed by builders! It’s an inaccurate viewpoint falsely presenting the profession as a low-achiever, blue-collar career prospect.
As a result, many parents direct their kids away from engineering, which they view as a career path leading nowhere. It’s all the more important then for schools to be well equipped with the knowledge or ability to communicate the many benefits of such a career, to inform not only students, but parents too. To foster a better understanding of engineering and other STEM professions, we need to ensure a constant dialogue with our educators.
This can be easily achieved by establishing relationship with local schools, teachers and pupils. We need to equip educators to communicate the benefits of the profession and inspire young minds to consider it as a potential career path.
Universities have a role to play as well. There currently exists an overdependence on graduates with a narrow set of criteria. Within engineering, experience tells students that good maths, physics and another technology A level will statistically make them desirable graduates. Consequently, universities only attract candidates from a pool of about 30,000 and deny themselves access to the 650,000 or so who might also make great engineers.
While I believe universities need to be braver in their approach, engineering professionals need to offer these higher level institutions more support and constructive feedback to ensure this. A good start is to get your company to these institutions’ career fairs (and other similar events), into the subject departments and the wider student media, selling yourself direct to a non-traditional audience.
There is no place for outdated stereotypes in engineering. It is the realm of problem solvers, humanitarians, mathematicians, artists and visionaries. It would be to the serious detriment of the profession to generalise this highly skilled, extraordinary group of people. With dedication and discipline, we can cut through long-held misconceptions to encourage a new generation of engineers.
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