Friday, 14 December 2012

STEMinists: your country needs you!

Picture: Birmingham Mail
Just before leaving the office for a conference, I glance at the Daily Telegraph and notice a letter from Sir James Dyson highlighting (not for the first time) the critical need for more engineers and bemoaning the fact that he has struggled to fill the 200 jobs on offer in his company this year.

Moments later,  EngineeringUK's 2013 report The state of engineering arrives, hot off the press.  It has the same message. Engineering companies are projected to have 2.74 million job openings between now and 2020, of which 1.86 million will need engineering skills. Satisfying this demand means, in rough figures, a doubling of recruits to the sector. The report also points out that the average starting salary of £25,762 for engineering and technology graduates is nearly 16 per cent higher than the average for all graduates.

All very timely, as I am off to deliver the keynote speech at Engineer your future, the first STEMinism event for women engineering students, hosted at the Shell Centre in London. At least I won't be castigated for advising them to go into a dead end career,  remembering the time I was speaking at a construction conference in the late nineties. One delegate was vociferous in his disapproval of efforts to encourage women into the building trades "because they'll all lose their jobs when the inevitable downturn comes." 
Warming up at Engineer your future
The Shell Centre is humming when I arrive. More than one hundred young women, selected from the 600 who applied to attend, have made the journey from around the UK, overcoming floods, cancelled trains and stringent Shell security. All are studying engineering in various disciplines, all are bright-eyed, articulate and keen to make the most of the day. Organised by Targetjobs, the event is sponsored by EDF Energy, Shell, TFL, TubeLines, Microsoft, Cisco, Caterpillar, National Grid and MBDA.

My speech Motivation, innovation and self-preservation seems to go down well and over lunch a stream of students come up to talk, with questions ranging from the work/life juggle (balancing the demands of a two year old son and a career) to concerns about a new course combining engineering with architecture (will I be employable or should I plump for straightforward civil engineering) to the best ways of helping mid-career women engineers to progress.

Sitting round a table with a workshop group, one young woman describes how she is studying engineering for all the reasons that I have highlighted - the excitement, the wonder and the sense of achievement - but says that the teaching at her top rank university has sucked all that out of her. She has decided to go into management consultancy. In striking contrast another waxes eloquent about her course. "It’s brilliant," she says. "Really interesting and we work on real projects and I can’t wait for my year in industry.”

Tomorrow's engineeers
Three others talk about how inspirational their maths and physics teachers were at school, but many say that they had little support and encouragement to take up an engineering career. This underlines some of the dispiriting findings of EngineeringUK’s  report. Whilst 87% of teachers agree that providing careers guidance is part of their role, eight out of ten base that guidance on their own knowledge and experience. Even worse,  21% of STEM teachers think a career in engineering is undesirable. And on top of all this,  49% of state co-educational schools in England did not send any girls to study physics at A level in 2011.

There is good news, however. EngineeringUK’s two main programmes, The Big Bang Science and Engineering Fair and Tomorrow’s Engineers, are producing encouraging results.  Impact evaluation reveals that the proportion of 12 – 16 year olds expressing knowledge of what people in engineering do has almost doubled, from 11% to 19.8% this year. Moreover the likelihood of this group seeing a career in engineering as desirable has risen year-on-year from 29% to 38%. Even more importantly, of the 56,000 young people and their teachers attending the Big Bang Fair this year, 54% were female. 
Delivering the keynote: Motivation, innovation and self-preservation
As a non-executive director of EngineeringUK I have direct experience of the Big Bang Fair and the extraordinary buzz it creates with all ages. The event includes the finals of the National Science & Engineering Competition, with its impressive and determined young contenders.
Jessica Jones, electronics inventor
For the first time, the winner at this year’s event in March was a woman student.  Jessica Jones and her co-winner Wasim Miah, both 17 and from St David's Catholic College, Cardiff, devised an Optical Foetal Monitor that indicates to pregnant women when they are about to go into labour. 

Jessica is now studying Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Cardiff University. She is also in the process of patenting a form of fibre optic sensing technology and setting up a limited company to market this product. Recognising this youthful talent, on 6 December at the IET’s Young Women Engineer awards, Jessica was announced winner of the 2012 Intel Inspirational Award for Entrepreneurship.

Back to the need for engineers. Sir James Dyson thinks that more students should be encouraged to come to the UK to study engineering and then stay here. EngineeringUK believes that we should be growing our own, encouraging more young people - particularly girls -  in the UK to stick with the maths and physics to go on to take up careers in engineering.

One of the slides I show when promoting women in engineering is a photo collage of the women who have recently become presidents of professional engineering institutions.  I highlight the fact that they all run their own businesses and also point out that we have yet to see a woman president of an electrical engineering professional body. Looking at Jessica and the other finalists at the IET, it will surely not be too long before that gap is filled.


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