Engineering beats law and finance as parental job choice for their kids, but medicine is out in front as the best career option – according to the findings of a survey of parents of 11-16 year olds commissioned by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) to discover to what extent parents’ attitudes to engineering careers are contributing to the engineering skills shortage in the UK.
Analysis of the responses reveal that medicine and associated professions top the list of parental career choices for their children (18%), while a career in finance is named by far fewer (3%). Only 7% of parents who expressed a preferred career choice for their child chose engineering, beating law (4%) and finance, but lagging behind teaching (10%) and arts and media (11%).
The IET believes that engineers need to work harder to make engineering appealing to the next generation – and their parents – and to convince them that it represents a worthwhile and motivating career choice. More encouraging is that 14% of parents said they thought a career in science and technology would be best for their child, suggesting that technology is the area of engineering that has most appeal for parents.
When asked the reasons for their choice of career, the top answer given by parents was “I think they would enjoy it” (50%). Only 36% of parents cited “I think there are good job opportunities” or “I think there are good career opportunities”, suggesting that the fact that the engineering sector will need 87,000 engineers each year over the next decade is unlikely to be a major motivating force for parents; we still need to do more, therefore, to convince parents that engineering is a creative, rewarding and diverse career for their child.
We’ve also asked what employers think about skills shortages in engineering. Nearly 60 per cent of them are concerned they will be unable to recruit the engineering skills and talent their business needs, according to the IET’s 2014 skills survey. But, it is not only engineering employers who should be worried about the looming skills crisis. So serious is the scale of the problem that, if it continues, the UK’s future economic prosperity could be at risk.
Yet there has never been a better time to be an engineer: demand that far outstrips supply, rising salaries and fantastic career prospects are typical characteristics of the profession today.
The other half
One of the key contributors to the skills shortage is the failure to attract women into engineering and IT careers. The shocking reality is that the UK is neglecting half of the potential workforce. While there is a desire to tackle this lack of diversity, disappointingly, the proportion of female engineers has not improved since 2008 and stands at a measly six per cent of the workforce, lagging behind Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus.
So why is it proving so difficult to attract women into engineering? I think it’s down to a combination of things: from the advice and influence of parents, through careers advice girls are given in schools, to instilling young women with the confidence to opt for science and maths at A Level. Employers also need to do more to make their approach to recruitment and retention more female friendly, for example by offering flexible working hours.
Another issue is the shortage of inspirational engineering role models for girls. There are some amazing individuals out there, such as Abbie Hutty, the IET’s current Young Woman Engineer of the Year, who is a Spacecraft Structures Engineer working on the European Space Agency’s upcoming ExoMars mission. But we need more. Strong engineering role models – both male and female – can help us inspire the next generation of engineers by making young people aware of the wealth of interesting, creative and rewarding career opportunities out there. Engineers, who can be inherently introverted by nature, also need to lose their inhibitions and get much better at promoting what they do.
We must also recognise and promote the range of routes into engineering. Students should be encouraged to pursue the paths that are most appropriate to their strengths, whether that be an academic or vocational course.
What is needed is an ‘all hands on deck’ approach. Government, schools, universities, professional bodies – and parents too – have a vital role to play in creating a pipeline of engineering talent for the future, and stronger collaboration between employers and the educational system is essential. Above all, we need to take action now – before it is too late. Otherwise we could find ourselves sleepwalking into a deepening skills crisis from which we may struggle to recover. A decade ago it was the finance sector that people looked to as the lifeblood of our economy. Today we need to refocus on manufacturing, technology and engineering. The UK must now invest in the skilled workforce that the engineering and technology sector desperately needs to remain globally competitive.
About the author
Professor William Webb is President of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET)