Opportunity is calling
07 Mar 2011
Engineering UK is working hard to resuscitate the reputation of engineering, so new entrants to the industry can make the most of their chances, chief executive Paul Jackson tells Matthew Valentine
For an industry that offers rewarding and diverse employment, has growing career opportunities because of a long-term skills shortage and offers better than average pay, it is fair to say that the poor public profile of engineering is failing to reflect the reality of the sector.
Paul Jackson, chief executive of Engineering UK, says that improving the public perception of engineering is at the top of his agenda: "Where I would hope we could continue to make progress is on changing public attitudes," he says. "That is the big issue: public attitudes and public information." He is in no doubt as to the scale of the problem.
"When we ask the public who they think will shape the economy, or save the planet, the answer from the majority is that they think it will be engineers who do it. Which is brilliant," he says. "But we asked a sample of around a thousand, if they could name an engineering innovation from the past 50 years that has had a real impact on their lives. Two thirds couldn't. Over 60 per cent couldn't name anything or said there wasn't anything. That tells you that there is a disconnection between that kind of blind faith, which is appropriately placed, and the understanding of what it actually means."
That disconnection has an impact that could reverberate through the careers of young people for years, he says. It means that the careers advice that young students receive may not be accurate and the understanding of opportunities may be undervalued when students are choosing their GCSEs, A Levels or degrees.
Careers advice is an area of which Engineering UK has been critical, admits Jackson. "It's very mixed across the country," he says. "People going into careers advice don't tend to come from an engineering or science background, so they are more likely to know other areas well."
Engineering UK has carried out research among careers advisors, asking, for example, what kind of qualifications are needed for a career in engineering. "Most of them thought you need to be a graduate, which is, of course, not the case. There are great opportunities in engineering, going through other routes. In fact, there are probably more shortages at technician level than at graduate level, so there is an issue with the knowledge that is there to be imparted."
Despite the lack of available information, Jackson is confident that engineering has plenty to offer to prospective graduates and not just in terms of career satisfaction. In pragmatic terms, too, engineering has a lot of appealing factors.
"For young people, the top motivator in career choice is actually money," he says, based on figures from further Engineering UK research. "And if we look at the top 20 best paid graduate jobs, seven out of the top 20 are engineering related. Chemical engineering is the best paid, just behind medicine and dentistry, but with medicine and dentistry you are going to be spending far longer at university. So that is the kind of information we are very keen for young people to have."
A number of projects are underway to make sure that the right information about engineering reaches young people and that further resources are available, if they want to find out more. These include a plan to develop an 'Enrich List' of high profile people who have made a difference through their knowledge of STEM subjects and the provision of increased teaching resources via the National STEM Centre.
Engineering UK will also be capitalising further on the popular and snappy reputation established by The Big Bang (10-12 March 2011). While on a simple level this is a three-day event to highlight STEM subjects, it is fast expanding to offer a year-round timetable of events to inspire young engineers. "In the past, we've sometimes come up, as an engineering community, with some rather complex brands," says Jackson. "So this is simple and it is broad. If you are an eleven-year-old, it's not about becoming a chemical engineer, or a mechanical engineer, or a specialist in gearbox lubrication. It's about maintaining a level of interest in maths and the sciences to keep your options open... our system narrows peoples' options down, rather than keeping them broad. So it's incredibly important."
The high profile that the Big Bang has achieved should help. In its second year, held in Manchester, the event attracted 23,500 people. "Having a queue of people outside Manchester Central, waiting to get into the public day on the Saturday for a STEM event, is just incredible," he states. "But if we only did three days, then ignored it for the rest of the year, there would be 362 days we were wasting."
However, inspiring young people to study STEM subjects is only part of the battle. With the much discussed increase in university tuition fees set to be a big issue for those currently choosing an engineering degree, Jackson admits the impact that the costs will have on overall graduate numbers is an unknown quantity. "It's an interesting balance... lifetime earnings with a degree are something like £160,000 more for a graduate than for a non-graduate. If you look at an engineering graduate, the difference is closer to £250,000. Does that mean people will look at the level of debt and the level of return they are going to get from it? Well, possibly."
However, Jackson remains optimistic about the future for engineering and for those who choose to study it. "One of the factors in taking an engineering degree is that most people will want to go into something that is related to their discipline, whereas if you take a degree in, say, English, you will probably be open to a whole range of opportunities. And that commitment, coupled with the growing government focus on STEM skills and the role of manufacturing in the economy, plus the increasingly importance of low carbon technologies, means opportunities are there for the taking."
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