Claire Noble, New Talent Development Manager, Cadent

Engineering suffers from an image problem among young people. ‘Boring’, ‘greasy’ and ‘too difficult’ are just some of the descriptions applied to a profession that is, in fact, breath-taking in its sheer diversity.

Engineering spans a huge range of activities from providing clean water in the developing world to Crossrail, mobile phones and robots. Engineers are playing a key role in decarbonising energy and tackling climate change, from hydrogen heating to electric cars.

Engineering underpins every aspect of modern life, from how we heat and light our homes to how we travel, work, play and communicate. For Cadent engineering is at the heart of what we do, delivering gas to 11 million homes in England via a pipeline network that could stretch three times around the world.

This week is Tomorrow’s Engineers Week. Now in its seventh year, this annual event brings together engineers, employers, universities and schools to change perceptions of engineering among young people, their parents and teachers and inspire future careers in the field.

Engineering is a vibrant and growing part of our economy.

It generates 23% of the UK’s total turnover. Employment in the sector is increasing – in fact we need 203,000 people with Level 3-plus engineering qualifications every year to meet demand.

And yet we’re facing an annual shortfall of up to 59,000 engineers. In our own sector alone– energy and utilities – we need 220,000 engineers in the next 10 years. Our own experience at Cadent is not unusual: one third of our workforce will retire in the next ten years.

Engineering is an attractive and well-paid profession. According to Engineering UK’s most recent ‘state of engineering’ report, 62% of engineering and technology graduates entered full-time employment on leaving university, compared with 56% of all graduates.

Furthermore, engineering and technology graduates earned 18% more than the average graduate in the first six months after leaving university. Their salaries were outstripped only by graduate vets, doctors and dentists.

It’s not just graduates that benefit. On average, engineering apprentices earn over double the minimum apprenticeship wage. And we know from our experience of our own organisation that there are excellent career prospects for apprentices, as well as graduates.

So why the shortfall?

Research from a host of sources, including Engineering UK, GenerationXt, and the ASPIRES project, points to some broad themes.

A lack of information about engineering and routes into it, coupled with poor perceptions of the profession, seem to be deterring young people. Engineering is still struggling to shake off its hard-hat-and-brown-overalls image.

‘Boring’, ‘dull’, ‘greasy’ and ‘too difficult’ were just some of the words used by 11-19-year-olds to describe engineering, according to Engineering UK. Only 28% knew a lot or quite a lot about what an engineer does. This dropped to 21% among girls, over a quarter of whom saw it as ‘too complicated’ even though girls equal, and in some cases outperform, boys in STEM GCSEs and ‘A’ Levels.

‘Patchy and inconsistent’ careers advice provision has compounded the issue. Engineering also suffers from an under representation of women, people from black and minority ethnic communities and those from poorer backgrounds.

The ‘leaky pipeline’ sees girls, in particular, drop out of engineering subjects at every level in the education system. While girls make up 50% of GCSE physics entries, they make up only 16% of engineering and technology first degree entrants and only 8% of engineering apprenticeships.

So what can we do?

Well, some of the Government’s broader initiatives around addressing the general STEM skills shortage such as T-levels, degree apprenticeships, and new institutes of technology are welcome developments.

However, to successfully address the specific barriers to careers in engineering, the engineering community – employers and institutions – need to work together with the government and educators.

As employers we have a crucial role to play in supporting schools, colleges and pupils in delivering careers education, workplace experiences, and STEM enrichment.

Research by the Education and Employers Taskforce found that adults who had four or more interactions with employers while in school were five times less likely to be NEET (not in education, employment or training).

Last year, at Cadent we launched our first education and skills strategy. Mindful that while one-off engagements can have a positive impact, that impact can fade over time, we set out to create a programme that provides meaningful and sustained interaction with students.

We have chosen to focus our main efforts on building partnerships with eight secondary education level schools and colleges, strategically located across our network, serving pupils aged 13-19. To address diversity, at least two of these schools are in economically deprived areas and this week we signed our first partnerships with two all-girls schools in East Anglia and North London.

Our programme aims to open the eyes of pupils to the possibilities of studying STEM careers. We encourage them to think about their choices at school and how that can impact the rest of their life. Stimulating interest early means students are better placed to make informed decisions and take accountability for their future.

The programme consists of three strands:

  1. STEM enrichment
  2. Careers inspiration and
  3. Work experience.

Our STEM enrichment activities are linked to the curriculum but demonstrate how science and engineering are applied in the ‘real’ world.

The careers inspiration strand offers students careers guidance, covering the many different routes into engineering, including apprenticeships.

Research by Engineering UK found that 58% of 11-14-year-olds knew almost nothing about apprenticeships and awareness was similarly low among parents. Knowledge was better among teachers but even so, only one fifth of teachers would advise higher performing pupils to opt for an apprenticeship.

Work experience is the third element. It is another key contribution that employers can make that has huge benefits for pupils, especially those interested in a STEM career. Research from both the ASPIRES project and CRAC, the careers development organisation, suggests that finding STEM work experience is harder than for other industries and yet STEM employers highly value it amongst job applicants.

Since the removal of statutory work experience, and the funding to support it, work placements are more likely to be organised by families than by schools or other agencies. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds, without the social and professional networks of their wealthier peers, often find it harder to land quality work placements so employers stepping in can make a real difference to these young people’s life chances.

Of course, work experience can vary hugely from company to company but for us it was important to reflect the sheer variety of engineering tasks we do. We have created two highly structured work experience weeks which see young people gaining practical, hands-on experience.

Areas covered range from dealing with customers, to extinguishing fires and developing students’ presentation skills. Next year we will run an all-girls work experience event, with plans to roll out work experience weeks at all our flagship training centres in 2021.

This intensive focus on eight schools will reach thousands of students every year. In addition, we are providing other forms of engagement with schools and colleges outside of the eight partner schools.

For example, we encourage our staff to accept ad hoc requests for work experience, providing them with guidance and support to ensure they provide a good quality work placement. We also support them to visit schools of their own choice.

In March we will be running a special, two-week work experience event targeted at those not in education, employment or training. During their time with us, they will study for a Level 2 NVQ in customer service.

They will also shadow, and buddy with, our staff, take part in a variety of workshops on themes such as customer service and career skills before being invited to take part in a job interview. Successful candidates will be employed by us.

Our ambition is to run a similar but engineering-focused work experience event at our North West training centre targeting NEETs and young people with special educational needs.

It’s early days for the strategy but we’re in this for the long haul. We are sharing it with industry and educational bodies to ensure we can take on board best practice.

We’re working, too, with Energy and Utility Skills to increase the diversity of our workforce. Earlier this year we were among 32 energy and utility companies that pledged to share ideas and good practice to bring more under-represented groups – women, people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, people with disabilities and the under-24s – into our sector.

Recruiting sufficient engineers to meet our needs and encouraging more young people to pursue a career in the profession won’t be easy but within the engineering community there is real appetite to rise to the challenge. And by working with the Government and educators, we can all break down the barriers and offer young people a rewarding career.

Claire Noble, New Talent Development Manager, Cadent

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