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More women engineers are needed... and soon

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The following was published in Politics First

The next government will have the challenge of how to start to fill the forecasted 250,000 plus vacancies in engineering that will arise up by 2022.

The country needs to plan long-term if we are to rebuild Britain’s infrastructure we know the sectors that need this effort, homes, roads, a modernised railway and a greater focus on renewable energy. Achieving any of these will only happen if there is a clear vision and persistent focus on delivery.

To succeed we will need more home-grown engineers, and if we are to get them we have to attract girls to enter the profession as well as boys. At present only around 9% of our engineers are female, the lowest proportion in the EU. We cannot achieve the numbers of scientists and engineers we need without addressing this long-standing problem.

The Perkins Review of Engineering Skills published in 2013 was a valuable contribution to the debate on the issue. But this high point obscures the lack of progress in tackling the issue.

Unfortunately the coalition government in 2012 withdrew all funding from the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC). The centre was a specialist organisation with lots of experience and deserved continued government support.

The government established the Employer Ownership Fund, 10 million of which was set aside for developing women engineers. It has been an abject failure, with just 104,000 going to engineering businesses. Any commitment about where the remaining funds might be spent have not been forthcoming. With a year-on-year increase of firms reporting difficulties in finding suitable graduate recruits - 12 to 19 % - this is not good enough.

Commit to three things

I want the next government to commit to three things:

        Inspire young people,

        Incentivise them to study engineering, and

        a commitment to ‘returnships’.

Children learn early just what a ‘woman’s job’ and a ‘man’s job’ are and make choices accordingly. If girls have never seen or never heard a women inventing something or fixing something, will they dream about doing that job when older? Efforts to broaden young people’s views of where engineering and science can take them must begin at primary school.

All nursery, primary and secondary education should be free from gender bias in the roles presented to children. Coupled with an embedded model of careers education, in which curriculum learning is linked to a wide range of real life careers, we can inspire the young to fulfil their engineering potential. Recent research by the Institute for Mechanical Engineers shows how current initiatives target those already interested in the subject - we need to attract those who have never thought of pursuing these careers.

Medical and nursing students - crucial to our country’s wellbeing - receive financial support from the state. We should take a similar approach for engineering courses by cutting tuition fees and providing bursaries to help with living costs.

But encouraging girls and young women will not be enough if the culture in the workplace does not change. For instance women engineers face serious barriers if they want to return to work after a break. These include not enough opportunities for flexible or part-time working, lack of training and guidance, and too little pay to set against the costs of childcare.

The Women’s Engineering Society is tackling this by championing the case of ‘returnships’ as a simple and effective way to help women back on the career ladder. Employers work with skills organisations, trade unions and others to create returnships bringing back women after career breaks.

The Daphne Jackson Trust have developed a good model to help professionals wishing to return to work after a break of 2 or more years with an individually tailored retraining programme. But to incentivise employer’s government should consider tax breaks and other financial rewards for those helping women engineers back into work.

We need to nearly double the number of engineering graduates every year if we are to reach the target given at the start of this contribution. But it’s in our interests to do so - a recent report estimated an increase of 27 billion of GDP if we meet the need for engineers. It’s too important for the next government not to act.


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