The missing link: Why we have so few engineers and even fewer female engineers

Back to basics

For a very long time, the UK has been suffering from a severe shortage of skilled recruits into the engineering/manufacturing sector. Many respected bodies including Parliament itself have bemoaned the fact for decades but nevertheless, the UK continues to struggle against its international competitors (especially the emerging economies in the Far East and India) and is failing to make the most of its undoubted opportunities around innovation and wealth creation. Put simply, we need more engineers (55,000 a year more) and the glaringly obvious fact is that as a nation, we are pretty abysmal at synchronising the outputs of our educational system with the needs of business – to the detriment of our economy and to the cost of the many and able young people who are seduced into following a non-vocational path in their education, which leads nowhere in particular. There are, of course, some fine local initiatives that serve as exemplars, but generally the evidence would suggest that the UK fails to align education with employability and if the UK is to continue as a going concern (irrespective of Brexit), that is just not good enough.

The question of women in engineering

At the moment, according to Engineering UK’s 2017 study, just 16% of engineering and technology undergraduate entrants are female. In terms of apprenticeships, the picture is even worse. Females accounted for just 8% of engineering apprenticeship starts (in England). The reasons for there being so few female students going into engineering are many and varied but as with the broader picture, the solution has to be a national one. By focusing on putting right one of our major failings we could start to dramatically reverse the decline. We need to inspire female students at secondary school or earlier to want to become engineers and we should make this a national priority based on achieving a given target by a certain date. The evidence shows that in too many cases, female students ditch all important STEM subjects after their GCSEs and their choice of A Levels is, in most cases, fatal to the cause.

Problems and solutions

  • Perceptions about engineering generally, but especially amongst female students.
  • Targets for schools – the GATSBY initiative is a real positive, but needs to go further.
  • Funding for FE colleges – this has been slashed over recent years, which makes it all the more difficult to put on expensive engineering courses and find enough tutors.
  • Knowledge around T Levels – these launch in 2020 but little information is available and employer engagement is problematic.
  • Apprenticeships – there are continuing concerns over the administration and use of the levy.

Here at MHA, a common theme from our annual Manufacturing and Engineering reports has been the skills gap and we have been banging the drum for many years and yet, despite the much-heralded UK Industrial Strategy, little has happened to initiate the sea-change that is needed. We would advocate that government sponsors a non-political policy forum to produce a national engineering strategy for education, the terms of reference being that it looks at all of the things that have worked here and elsewhere to meld a coherent and integrated UK approach to producing the engineers we need (female, as well as male), which government (whatever its hue) needs to follow through on.

This article featured in our Manufacturing and Engineering Newsletter. Read the full newsletter here: The Engine Issue 6

We hope you find our publication useful and if there is anything that you would like to discuss further or if you would like to speak with a member of our Manufacturing & Engineering team, please contact Hannah Farmborough or call on 0207 429 4147 to be put in contact with your local representative.