Hilary Leevers, CEO of EngineeringUK, sat down with The Manufacturer’s Reporter, Lanna Deamer, to discuss levelling up engineering skills and making the workforce more diverse, as well as how we can make engineering a career that is attractive to young people from all backgrounds.
From an early job working in a cables factory, Hilary seemed destined for a career in STEM. She studied psychology and neuroscience for her PHD and postdoc, but following a career break, worked for Campaign for Science and Engineering, and advocating for better policy and funding. Excited by its mission goals, she joined EngineeringUK three years ago to help the sector address the challenge of increasing diversity among the young people in engineering.
What is the function of EngineeringUK?
HL: EngineeringUK is a not-for-profit organisation passionate about inspiring the next generation of engineers and creating a diverse future workforce that enables the UK to thrive. Engineering is a varied, stimulating, and valuable career and we need to work harder than ever to ensure that it is accessible for this generation of young people – not just for their own life chances but so we also have the diverse and insightful workforce we need.
We work in partnership with the engineering community to inspire tomorrow’s engineers and increase the number and diversity of young people choosing academic and vocational pathways into engineering. In our schools outreach, we prioritise and tailor our offer to engage students from groups underrepresented in engineering. We offer bursaries to break down barriers to participation and consult with teachers and young people to refine and improve our offer to them.
We want to grow the collective impact of work across the sector to help young people understand what engineering is, how to get into it, and be motivated and able to access the educational and training opportunities on the way. We urge those in education, government and industry to work together to foster the critical engineering and technology skills needed for the UK to be a leader in innovation, improve societal and economic resilience and deliver on our net zero ambitions.
What progress have you seen in the sector?
We are seeing more young women move into engineering. Things are improving, but I would like it to improve a lot quicker. I hope that there will be a positive feedback loop, where young women and girls that are thinking about future careers, look into our sector and see more women and relatable role models, so that it feels like a more obvious move.
The more that we improve that representation, the faster we will be able to get that rate of improvement. When you look at our sectoral data, it is increasing slowly. We now estimate that 16.5% of the engineering workforce is female, that’s a six percentage point increase over an 11 year period. That’s really slow, but there is definitely a positive movement.
We are working hard to make sure young people have as many learning experiences as they can about what engineering is, what it’s like to work in tech, and we are determined to use role models that are relatable. We’re trying to make sure they see young women, as well as people from all different demographic groups, in those experiences. We’re very mindful of the role models we choose to highlight in our career case studies or panels.
How does EngineeringUK reach and inspire the next generation of engineers?
Our ambition is to inform and inspire young people and grow the number and diversity of tomorrow’s engineers. So many of the challenges we face in the world today require an engineer to solve them. We aim to achieve our ambition through the three core strands of our strategy:
Increasing reach and inspiration: Reach more diverse, young people with inspiring messages about careers in engineering.
Developing and sharing insight: Be the recognised and trusted voice on the pathways to engineering, related enablers and blockers for young people and good practice for engagement activities.
Growing collective impact: Simplify the landscape and enable partnerships and collaborations to inspire more and more diverse young people into engineering.
We’ve recently held The Big Bang Fair 2022 at the NEC in Birmingham, where thousands of young people joined us for the biggest celebration of STEM. It was packed full of exciting, interactive activities and was designed specifically with 11-14 year olds in mind; to provide the best careers inspiration, advice and opportunities and to meet with real scientists and engineers.
We received hundreds of incredible entries to The Big Bang Competition and the quality of the work undertaken impresses us each year. Young people have shown incredible resilience and determination during the past couple of years and the ambition, passion and enthusiasm the students show for their projects is truly inspiring. It certainly bodes well for the future that the scientists, engineers and inventors of tomorrow are already producing such astute and creative project work.
How important is diversity in the engineering sector?
Research demonstrates that increased workforce diversity improves innovation, creativity, productivity, resilience and market insight. We have a critical role to play in helping the engineering sector to be more effective by growing the diversity of its workforce. As engineering becomes more diverse this provides the societal good of also diversifying the beneficiaries of engineering products and services.
Not only that but increasing the proportion of under-represented groups progressing into engineering will not only raise the quality of engineering, but also address the skills shortage at a numerical level. If women participated in the engineering workforce, at the same rate they do across all areas of employment, then there would be 1.8 million more engineers.
At EngineeringUK, we believe that all young people should have equal opportunities in all walks of life, but particularly in pathways that lead to fulfilling and rewarding careers such as engineering.
These pathways have the potential to break intergenerational cycles of poverty. The work that we’ve been doing over the past three years has embraced the need to address the diversity of who we’re working with as an organisation but also the inclusivity and accessibility of everything we are doing ourselves.
All of our programmes have been revised and amended, and we are constantly testing the programmes to see how they land with different groups of young people to ensure that they’re working for everyone. It’s not an easy job, and it takes a lot of iteration as we’re constantly learning how we can do it better, but we’re determined to make that difference.
How do you ensure EngineeringUK is also working to become a diverse and inclusive organisation?
This has certainly been a huge learning curve for us because when we put together our first Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) strategy, it had a lot more thought and resource on the externally facing work that we were doing with young people and our partners. But its just as important to be working inclusively internally.
We are now working hard to review recruitment and induction processes to attract more diverse candidates for internal roles. We’re looking at policies and processes through an EDI lens, and there is also regular training and updates to ensure all members of staff are supported, confident and equipped in EDI.
We have relaunched the EDI working group and are identifying relevant employee resource groups in consultation with EngineeringUK employees, as well as annually checking the status against enei TIDE Framework and the Royal Academy of Engineering Diversity and Inclusion Progression Framework to ensure continual progression.
What is EngineeringUK’s EDI strategy?
We developed a three year EDI strategy to provide clarity on what we aim to achieve and help prioritise actions, eventually helping to create a diverse and inclusive engineering workforce, reflective of the UK population. We are focussed on bringing young people onto engineering pathways at the age of 19, but we are continuing to support the work of other organisations to ensure that further and higher education and employment are increasingly inclusive and with improved diversity. We also provide sectoral data on EDI with respect to the engineering sector’s workforce and associated education and training at all ages.
EngineeringUK has been working to improve the diversity of young people participating in its programmes for years; we are continuing to do this while investing more in understanding how participation affects different groups. We are gathering evidence and best practice that already exists and testing how we can improve our own activities. Now more than ever, we need to understand the barriers that underrepresented groups face in pursuing pathways to engineering education and careers, and work together to build a more inclusive engineering future.
We have two heads of EDI; one that is externally facing who looks after all our programmes and work with partners, and one who is internally facing. Both of them work in close partnership together, across the whole organisation. This works well as it balances the desire to develop as an organisation ourselves but also with the desire to improve the work that we’re doing with young people.
How can we tackle the recruitment and skills problems facing the sector?
Making sure young people have educational opportunities and pathways into engineering is critical. There is a formal education system that needs to be functioning prosperously, and within that, teachers play a huge part, so we need to be supporting them correctly as well.
There are also a lot of people who have been underrepresented in engineering that have left; we want to bring them back and show that the sector has changed and improved its commitments towards inclusivity. Retention is also very important and we’re working on commitment in that area as well.
For the government to tackle this skills shortage, there needs to be a deeper understanding of where the skills need will be (sector, geography and level) and then build out a plan for their delivery. If the UK is going achieve what we say we are, and really be that ‘innovation nation’, then it will need the workforce to do so. I don’t believe there is currently a plan in place, and I don’t think it will happen, unless we see some significant commitment to the cause.
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- Workforce diversity improves innovation, creativity, productivity, resilience and market insight
- It’s just as important to be working inclusively internally as it is externally
- Young people need to have as many different educational opportunities and pathways into engineering as possible
- We need to understand the barriers that underrepresented groups face in pursuing pathways to engineering education and careers
- If women participated in the engineering workforce, at the same rate they do across all areas of employment, then there would be 1.8 million more engineers