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Analysis | Right skills message, wrong language?

Education word cloud

With the oft-mentioned skills crisis looming, engineering firms are keen to attract new talent to the industry.

It’s proving hard to do, however, and if the country is going to double the number of STEM graduates and apprentices by 2022 – as outlined by Engineering UK’s 2016 report – the industry needs to up its game.

So what can be done?

Although recruiting from other sectors is part of the answer, the most obvious solution is sitting in the UK’s classrooms – and companies are trying hard to tap into this with plenty of outreach programmes in schools.

But is it working? One education resources provider warns that students are turned off by presentations that don’t encourage participation.

“What we usually find is there’s activity going on but a majority of the time it’s ‘death by Power Point’,” says Words&Pictures client services director Holly Mudie.

The company works with firms across all sectors to create fun and interactive resources for schools on a particular topic, bridging the gap between organisations and the young people they want to recruit.

But even Mudie admits it’s hard for the engineering sector to inspire students.

“It’s a difficult one to tackle because it’s such a complex sector to try to attract people into, whether it’s male or female,” she says.

Gender does play its part, however. Although 24% of boys take STEM subjects at Level 4 (higher apprenticeships or university courses), it’s only 7% for girls.

That’s a lot of talent for the engineering sector to miss out on – so, what’s turning girls away?

Engineering equality campaign group Wise thinks it knows the answer, and it lies in our language.

Research by professor Averil McDonald found that while boys and men often use verbs to describe themselves, girls and women tend to use adjectives.

She noticed that traditional STEM outreach work is verb-based: it focuses on what engineers do, such as bridge building, rather than the attributes needed to thrive in an engineering career.

And that puts girls off.

“What we felt was, and Averil’s report showed, is if you just say: ‘Be an engineer’, it kind of doesn’t land, because they don’t see it as relevant,” says Wise chief executive Helen Wollaston.

“But if you say: ‘Be creative, be practical’…that starts to get them interested.”

Wise has created a set of resources for use in schools called People Like Me, targeted specifically at girls.

Students take a personality quiz, choosing a series of adjectives that best describe themselves. They are then presented with a series of STEM job roles that suit their personality type.

“It’s really taken off because it’s a different approach to traditional STEM outreach,” says Wollaston.

Wise is planning a similar series aimed at older girls looking for apprenticeships, and another aimed at primary-age children.

“We lose girls along the way, I’m sure we do,” says Wollaston. “And we can’t afford to.”

So it seems that if the industry wants to meet its recruitment targets and double STEM graduates and apprentices by 2022, giving a Power Point presentation on what engineers do is not enough – we need to start speaking students’ language.

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