Carrie Grafham, Careers Adviser


Engineering: a nebulous idea

Before I trained as a Careers Adviser I knew little about engineering; my father was a Civil Engineer but it’s been a steep learning curve for me to understand this broadest of professions, and it would take many hours to map the diverse routes and pathways available to our future engineers. Depending on the specialism you choose, there are entry points across a wide span of academic achievement, from a few GCSEs to postgraduate qualifications.

Engineering is a complicated profession to describe to students and the sector’s most compelling spokespeople are those who speak from personal experience. The need for the UK to attract more school-age students into STEM subjects is well documented, but in practical terms it is difficult for schools to give students a real sense of the variety and scope of careers in engineering.

The idea of engineering as a career choice is so broad as to be almost nebulous, and therein lies the complexity. What exactly is engineering? What does it mean? And how do schools communicate this complexity to students?

A perception problem?

The UK has long been a global centre of excellence for engineering, yet there lingers a perception here that it’s all “dirty overalls and spanners”. This is at odds with the perception of  engineering, predominant in Western Europe, as a more sophisticated and elegant career choice. There’s nothing wrong with dirty overalls and spanners, of course, but this inaccurate perception dissuades many students who are skilled in STEM subjects at school.  I have seen a lot of competent maths and science students—especially girls—who could go into engineering but grimace when I talk to them about it. They reject it in favour of careers in dentistry, medicine or pharmaceuticals.

The UK faces an annual shortfall of nearly 60,000 engineers to the year 2024. A lot of these roles will be in fashionable green careers such as energy and environmental sustainability. In the UK only 16.5% of engineers are women, despite the sector itself working hard to encourage more diverse applications from students.

A range of careers

Engineering is one of the truly burgeoning sectors where new roles emerge almost overnight as new technologies are created, or new applications are found for existing technologies. Within energy, design, AI, green engineering and many more areas, we’re seeing the emergence of roles that didn’t exist just a few years ago.

It would take me the entirety of a career session with a student to describe the full gamut of career options in the so-called engineering sector (probably not an especially useful term, but one we’re stuck with) today. Even a student who is good at chemistry, maths or physics and inclined towards engineering options might not say “I want to find out more about what I can do within engineering.” Instead they’ll ask about automotive or manufacturing careers. Until they speak to a Careers Adviser they will have had exposure to a mere fraction of what’s out there. It's a challenge because Careers Advisers need to coach students, not tell them what to do.

How employers and schools can help

I wish I saw more students enthused to learn about engineering careers. Of course it’s my job to help them understand their options but Careers Advisers have limited time and scope. Schools and employers have a big role to play.

Although many schools work hard to promote the STEM agenda, it takes a lot of resource to promote STEM subjects and follow that up with the level of education required to produce future generations of recruits with solid potential. We can create action plans for students to help them learn more, but thereafter it becomes difficult for us to steer them any further as they leave our remit. The result is that some schools fare better than others in promoting STEM careers.

Despite a lot of good work to date, the STEM industry can still do more to engage with students.  I think age 12-14 is a great time to enthuse students about the diversity of career choices within the engineering sector. How diverse? The Prospects website features 34 engineering roles for students to consider. Engineering sub-sectors include bioengineering, aerospace, chemical, civil, electrical/electronics, mechanical and many more. And while many engineering roles and sub-sectors have challenging barriers to entry, there are fields where the academic requirements aren’t especially stringent. Some Civil Engineering roles require HNC or HND qualifications as a way into the profession, while senior roles are very well paid.

But how do we convey all of this to young students?

One of the best ways to open students’ eyes to career options they may not have considered is for employers, schools and colleges to be better aligned. Many of Adviza’s programmes do precisely this, and allow for employers to present to students, mentor them, offer work experience or T-Levels and more.

Local employers perform a very important outreach function, because students need to be shown the options available to them by people outside of their immediate peer group, family and even teachers.  In the drive to produce more highly-skilled STEM candidates, the best example students can have is a roster of great employers who are doing exciting, critical work in the fields of electronics, manufacturing, sustainable technology, design, aerospace, automotive, regenerative energy and more. These sub-sectors alone offer some of the most exciting careers available, as well as some of the most important. 

I’ve no doubt that if students had a better picture of what engineering really is today, a great many more would enter the profession, and we’d see the critical STEM skills gap begin to narrow.


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