From education to employment


James Turner, CEO of the Sutton Trust


A new report by the Sutton Trust and the Bridge Group finds that professional roles in engineering are more socio-economically diverse than most other sectors, including journalism and law.

Previous research by both the Sutton Trust and the Bridge Group has highlighted unequal access to many leading professions, with young people from poorer homes often facing barriers to get a foot in many industries. Engineering is often considered an exemplar sector for socio-economic diversity and today’s report provides a closer look at access to and progression within the profession.

Just over one in five (21%) professionals in engineering are from a low socio-economic background, which is higher than doctors (6%), journalists (12%) and professionals in law (13%) – although still lower than the workforce as a whole (29%). One potential reason for this is that engineering jobs are far more geographically spread than other professions, and in particular are less centred in London and the South East.

The report suggests that where possible, other sectors should look to provide opportunities that are more evenly spread throughout the UK, to balance the trend of having to move to London or the South East to get ahead. The engineering sector demonstrates the social mobility potential of the levelling up agenda.

According to today’s report, the technical nature of many roles in the engineering industry could also play a role in socio-economic diversity. This is because talent can typically be more objectively assessed, and softer indicators such as ‘polish’ and ‘confidence’ and ‘gravitas’, may be seen as less important. The report recommends that other sectors should learn from this, and develop definitions of talent and performance which are as clear and objective as possible.

However, while professional roles in engineering are more diverse than many other sectors, pathways to entering the profession can still be difficult for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Barriers include disparities in GCSE attainment and differences in access to subjects like triple science and physics. The split between students taking vocational and academic routes also risks perpetuating inequalities. Vocational routes tend to attract more students from less well-off backgrounds, and these courses at level 3 can be less likely to facilitate entry to higher education, and so can limit career progression and professional recognition.

While pay gaps by socio-economic background are smaller in engineering than most other sectors, the report also highlights the evidence that those from higher socio-economic backgrounds are still much more likely to progress to senior roles. In engineering almost three quarters (71%) of people in their thirties from higher socio-economic backgrounds are in managerial or professional roles, compared with just 39% from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

To support access to and progression within engineering, today’s report makes several recommendations for the sector, including:

  • Employers in the sector should collect and analyse data on socioeconomic background as well as gender and ethnicity, so that firms can better understand their workforce and respond to imbalances.
  • Regulators and sector bodies should work across the sector to establish a consortium of engineering firms to work on advancing socio-economic diversity and inclusion. This work should also support diversity in other areas, including gender and ethnicity.
  • Firms should introduce clear pathways to support progression for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
  • Firms should look at ways to widen work experience opportunities and insight days in engineering for young people, especially for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

To help improve access to engineering for young people, the Sutton Trust runs Pathways to Engineering, a programme designed to support lower income young people into the industry. The programme provides the opportunity for young people from lower income homes to explore a career in engineering through a week-long residential programme including mentoring, skills sessions and networking opportunities.

James Turner, Chief Executive of the Sutton Trust, said:

“Engineering offers fantastic career prospects, so it is great to see that the sector is performing better than most when it comes to socioeconomic diversity.

“Opportunities in engineering are spread throughout the country, giving good employment prospects to young people from different regions and making an important contribution to levelling up. 

“However, today’s report also highlights that there is more work to be done, particularly in supporting progression to senior roles. It is vital that the engineering sector continues its diversity and inclusion work to make sure it is accessing the very best talent from all sections of society.  We hope that our recommendations today provide some useful insights on how to achieve this and some valuable lessons for other professions too”.

Nik Miller, Chief Executive of the Bridge Group, said:

“There is much for the professions to learn from engineering, but also actions that are needed within this sector to enable more equal progression – especially to more senior roles.

“While engineering compares favourably against most other professional sectors in relation to socio-economic diversity and inclusion, there are still inequalities in access, progression and pay – and important relationships between this characteristic and others, including gender and ethnicity.

“Bringing together the range of research in this area, we hope this report will inspire action at a time when the imperative for social equality is clear – and the role of our engineering sector more vital than ever”

Sector Response

Responding to the Sutton Trust research showing that socio-economic barriers remain in engineering following the downgrading of Design and Technology qualifications, Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said:

“Design & Technology is an excellent subject which opens doors for young people from all backgrounds in a number of engineering careers as well as other high skills jobs.

“Sadly, the government downgraded the importance of this subject by excluding it from the so-called English Baccalaureate suite of traditional academic GCSE subjects it wants young people to study. The English Baccalaureate subjects are embedded in the performance tables on which schools are judged, and in a double-whammy, schools have also had to cut their budgets over the past decade because of government underfunding.

“While schools endeavour to offer Design & Technology, these twin pressures have inevitably driven it to the fringes of the curriculum, along with creative subjects. This makes no sense at all for a government which wants to introduce a skills revolution in education.

“It would surely be logical for the government to end this artificial divide between subjects and support Design & Technology in pre-16 education in order to lay the groundwork for such a revolution, ensure that all young people are able to pursue subjects which interest them, and meet the needs of British industry in training the engineers of the future.”

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