Engineering touches almost everything we do and use. From switching on a light to driving a car and from going on holiday to being treated in hospital, engineers have made it possible. The problem is that the diversity of exciting careers that an engineering qualification can open up isn’t getting through to enough young people and their parents.
In fact, outdated ideas among schoolchildren and their parents about engineering have been found to be damaging the industry, with one study by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) revealing that most youngsters believe a typical engineer is white, middle-aged and male. Fewer than one in 10 described a typical engineer as female and many schoolchildren described engineers as having glasses, beards and short brown hair, wearing hard hats, protective eyewear and hi-vis jackets. But don’t laugh too hard at this cartoon-like portrayal that puts them off even considering engineering - IET found parents had similarly archaic perceptions.
This is the Year of Engineering, a year-long national campaign put in place to tackle this very problem and ultimately to help fill the engineering skills gap. So should you as parents sit up and take notice? Absolutely. From sustainable energies to robotics and from medical technology to aeronautics, engineering is where our future lies. But if you roll your eyes and yawn as soon as the word ‘engineering’ crops up, what hope is there for your children? No wonder the government is aiming its campaign not only at young people, but their parents and teachers too.
If you’ve got daughters, sit up even straighter. Currently only nine per cent of engineers in the UK are female, the lowest in Europe. Gender stereotyping, limited female role models, misunderstandings about the job itself and parental attitudes are all cited as contributing. Too many families dismiss engineering as masculine, unglamorous and geeky, whereas in fact women have the chance to shine in cutting-edge industries where art and design form key parts of the engineering discipline.
Parents alone can’t solve the skills gap. Teachers, employers and the government need to do much more to turn children of primary-school age onto engineering. The STEM curriculum needs to be better linked to the workplace, with more work experience opportunities and talks in schools from high-flying engineers. Workplaces need to be more family-friendly. Just to name a few.
But parents nevertheless have serious sway in this sphere. So let’s embrace the fact that ‘engineering’ literally means ‘making things happen.’ Get to know the difference between a chemical and civil engineer; aerospace architectural. The range of jobs is mind-blowing. What do they do? How are they changing our world? What skills do you need? What qualifications? Ultimately, could your child be suited to the innovative thinking and problem solving that engineering involves to help benefit our society? As Albert Einstein once said, ‘Scientists investigate that which already is; Engineers create that which has never been.’