We are into the fifth month of the government’s Year of Engineering. It involves a promotion of STEM subjects – that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths in that order; it turned out that SMET didn’t sound nurturing enough – throughout the education system and represents the most child-friendly arm of the government’s campaign to address the skills gap in the engineering sector. The Year of Engineering even has its own peppy twitter feed filled front-to-back with colourful graphics and engaging stories about the importance of engineering in everyday life with a sprinkling of Crossrail propaganda thrown in to hold the interest of the youngest London-centric public transport enthusiasts.
But the numbers don’t lie. The Year of Engineering might have come just in the nick of time, if not a good few decades too late. The red lights are flashing all across YouGov’s* data dashboards. That the average engineer is particularly old and male (and, for what it’s worth, slightly politically to the right according to the website’s third and final key indicator) comes as no surprise but the sector’s failure to engage and employ a more representative workforce in the midst of a period of commercial and political uncertainty may cost the UK dearly; as things stand, even the most optimistic reports seem to agree the UK will be short of at least 20,000 skilled engineers annually from hereon in.
Whichever way you spin it, underrepresentation is rife throughout the industry in this country. At less than 10%, the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, trailing leaders Bulgaria, Latvia and Cyprus where nearly 30% of engineers are women. Sweden, the yardstick for the kind of progress Britain feels it ought to be making if only it would be more gracious in its successes, come in at 25%. Back in the UK, a mere 6% of those working in the engineering sector today are from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. The numbers continue to suggest that in terms of diversity, engineering falls short time and time again especially in comparison to other traditionally prestigious professions such as law, medicine and dentistry, all of which can boast a considerably more diverse workforce thanks to their meaningful reactions to criticism of their outdated recruitment policies over the past decade or so.
The view from inside our particular subsection of the engineering and manufacturing sector would tend to tell a similar story. A Hydraulics industry conference in Italy towards the end of last year brought together group members from all over world and of the hundred or so non-Italian based international guests, there were only three female invitees. At Hydralok we have always tried to do things our own way and have kept a keen eye on diversity within the company and though the above numbers are striking, if ultimately unsurprising, it is worth noting that of the three international female attendees, two were our very own Katherine Séverin, Head of UK Operations and Valentina Santo, Head of Sales. Any customer calling in with a sales or technical machine query will most likely speak to Katherine, Valentina or Stefania, our newest team member. Amy, who was Hydralok’s development engineer a few years back, left her mark on the company and we are using her designs and solutions in our machines to this day. Diversity matters and it is never a case of paying lip service to nationwide calls for better representation: gender diverse companies perform better and from our own experience, make for happy and healthy places to work. Outside of the UK, a fellow hydraulics company, FB Hydraulics of Italy, are a particularly good example of something of a breakthrough in the industry; 60% of their employees are female and they have a great history of inclusiveness and equality.
While we are proud to be one of a growing number of examples of representative workplaces, The Year of Engineering takes aim at the industry as a whole and the campaign targets the sector’s grassroots and evidence suggests that this should prove fertile ground for the ideas to take hold as there is now very little gender difference in the uptake and achievement in GCSE STEM subjects. Encouragingly, this suggests an appreciation amongst teenagers that science, maths and engineering are no longer the subjects for ‘boys and their toys’.
The government’s campaign aims to promote engineering as a discipline that touches every part of modern life, stripping back the hard hats and high-vis vests to show the reality of an industry that bristles with ideas and innovation. The question of ‘who’ is being reached goes hand in hand with the question of ‘what’ they are being told. This country may well suffer from a sense of not really knowing what an engineer does. This really would represent a crisis not only in engineering but also in the general level of interest we take in others. Given that over 5.5 million people are employed in the sector we probably all know at least one. To this end, recent posts on the Year of Engineering Twitter feed include: new technology that allows a deaf dancer to feel music rather than hearing it, a revolutionary solution for household air pollution in India and a story on 3D printed hydraulic prosthetic limbs. It seems unfathomable that an industry that crashes through the frontiers of the possibilities of technology on a yearly basis could be so lacking in action towards diversity to compliment innovation.
Somewhere between the gentle pointers to videos of robot door-opening dogs, various pop-up pats on the back for government executive agencies and statements along the lines of ‘engineering is all around us’, The Year of Engineering taps into a sense of excitement and urgency and the importance of the visibility of a diverse and exciting industry cannot be understated. Whilst it is clear that those in positions of influence need to do most of the heavy lifting to shift the tectonic plates of change below our feet or above our heads (deleted according to your beliefs on where the government live or according to your knowledge of tectonic plates), the tenets of the government’s campaign should be simple enough to get the ball rolling on an individual basis. Take a look at their Twitter feed and see if anything catches your eye. Pass it onto your children or any teachers you know. Last but not least, if you are engineer, tell someone about what you do – someone who isn’t another engineer – and for God’s sakes try to make it interesting.
*As an aside, I’d recommend anyone put YouGov’s ‘What the World Thinks’ application to the test. According to statistical correlations, it also turns out that the median engineer is into DIY; French ambient music pioneer, Jean-Michel Jarre; and motorsports. Even more worryingly, from the statistics, it appears that the favoured dishes of the engineer are lime pickle and Scotch broth. YouGov’s strange finger-on-the-pulse data hub has amassed a library of very valuable information but in the process has left a trail of statistical fallout that reads like a mistranslated guide to life on earth based on a society that first invented a selection of dishes and general interests and then designed the human race to fit around them. Not only can we find out the most ‘Engineering’ hobby, we can find out the most ‘Onion Bhaji’ negative trait, or the most ‘Earth, Wind & Fire’ bank.