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Mark Naysmith viewpoint: Inspiring the youth - engineering the next generation

Mark Naysmith

Mark Naysmith, WSP

There’s nothing like seeing your project, whether it be a road, bridge, or building, taking its place in society and truly impacting on the lives of people around it.

So why do we find it so hard to get young people, especially women, interested in an engineering-related career? Women make up only 8.7% of the UK engineering workforce, although some areas like environment or transport planning have higher proportions.

It is a hot media topic. But as far as I can tell little is being done in way of on the ground solutions - solutions that ultimately we in the industry must implement. Just last month the Institution of Engineering & Technology (IET)’s annual skills survey found a third of employers in our industry are still not taking any action to address the gender imbalance.

So we at WSP consulted our technical female employees, who represent one fifth of our workforce. And we weren’t disappointed.

Lack of knowledge of what engineering actually is could be our main problem.

Perhaps compounding this is a lack of awareness of engineering consultancy work that firms like mine do, which makes up a major part of the sector and consists of professional desk-based roles, but is not often talked about in the general public as engineering.

It was the view of our technical females that we need to better educate teachers and careers advisors and adapt the curriculum to put more emphasis on STEM subjects in the classroom and when deciding next steps after school

Lack of knowledge of what engineering actually is could be our main problem

This makes excellent sense to me, and it was further verified by the fact that 64% of our women engineers told us that they were made aware of engineering as a career choice at school.

As we all know though, the theory is often different to the practise. While we had some fantastic suggestions come through to raise the profile of engineers - like casting an engineer in one of our most well-known soaps or setting an engineering-related task on “The Apprentice” - in reality it is going to take a concerted, industry-wide effort to change how engineering is presented to our youth. With a little help from the education sector and government of course.

Our survey also found a very strong belief that engineers in the UK do not command the same status as in the rest of the world.

In part this is because what we do is often less visible than other roles on construction projects, but no excuses. We need to up our game.

At WSP we are doing everything we can to ensure we are “growing our own” and investing in our future leaders and talent now, recognising that they will become the mid-level engineers we are likely to be short of in coming years.

Despite our best efforts, I remain concerned that if we don’t attract enough young people into the profession the workforce won’t be strong or diverse enough in the future to deliver on the challenges society will face.
But I am also extremely positive that if we act now we can change history.

  • Mark Naysmith is managing director for WSP in the UK

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