Wednesday 6 November 2019 4:40 am

Not all engineers wear hard hats and high-vis jackets

Dr Hayaatun Sillem is chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

What do prosthetic limbs, cosmetics, clean water, YouTube, and biodegradable plastic alternatives have in common?

None of them would exist without engineers – but that would likely come as a surprise to most people. 

Unfortunately, we suffer from narrow and outdated stereotypes of what engineers do and the role they play in society. And this misconception is preventing young people in the UK from considering these rewarding and varied careers. In fact, new research from EngineeringUK shows that over three quarters of people aged 11–19 don’t know much about what engineers do, and almost half have never thought about becoming an engineer.

This deficit of engineering ambition could have far-reaching implications for all of us. At present, we simply don’t have enough engineers to meet the needs of our economy: according to EngineeringUK, Britain needs up to 59,000 additional engineering graduates and technicians every year to meet demand. 

This skills crisis is not just about the numbers of people with the skills we need, it’s also about the diversity deficit in engineering. It is a source of real concern and frustration that only 12 per cent of the UK’s engineering workforce are women, while only nine per cent are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. 

Too many young people from underrepresented groups are missing out on future-facing, high job satisfaction  careers. But the lack of diversity has profound implications for society too.

Engineers play a profoundly important role in shaping the world around us – from designing our cities and transport systems, to delivering clean energy solutions, enhancing cyber security, and advancing healthcare. We need people from all backgrounds and walks of life to draw on their diverse experience in order to respond effectively to shared challenges. 

That’s why in January 2018 the Academy launched This Is Engineering, a campaign that highlights inspiring stories of real young engineers who represent the full diversity of the industry through short films on social media. 

Take Dr Enass Abo-Hamed, a young entrepreneur whose determination to protect the environment and help those in need drove her to set up her own company producing batteries that store renewable energy and provide power for hospitals, schools, and homes in the developing world. 

If young people are looking to make a difference to people and planet, stories like hers show how a career in engineering can make that a reality.

This Is Engineering is already having an impact: whereas 39 per of teens said that they would consider a career in engineering before the campaign launched, after a year that figure had risen to 72 per cent among those who had seen it. Importantly, the change in consideration had been greater among underrepresented groups.

We are building on these foundations to try to reach those who influence young people’s decisions – parents, grandparents, and teachers. We have made today – 6 November – This Is Engineering Day, a national day to publicly celebrate the industry, with organisations and supporters across the country coming together to showcase the real faces of twenty-first century engineering to the public.

It’s also why we’ve set out to change search engine image results for the word “engineer”. Rather than the current sea of (predominantly white) men in hard hats and high-vis jackets, we’ve created a public photo library featuring an array of diverse engineers from all areas. We’re challenging website owners, the media, advertisers, and recruiters to commit to using more representative and inclusive imagess when they depict engineers. 

Engineering is everywhere. By challenging stereotypes and shining a light on the individuals who make possible so many of the features of modern life, we hope to inspire more people from all parts of society to choose a profession that shapes our world.

To discover more, visit @ThisisEngineering on Instagram, or @ThisIsEng on Twitter.

Main image credit: This Is Engineering

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