The Manufacturer sits down with Hayaatun Sillem – newly appointed chief exec of the Royal Academy of Engineering

The newly appointed chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering Hayaatun Sillem never intended to be an engineer. Indeed, Hayaatun Sillem was looking forward to a career in the laboratory as a biochemist until health problems meant she had to rethink her future.

She secured a job at the Academy, and realised she had found her niche in life. Now, she is responsible for guiding the Academy at a time when the profession faces an annual shortfall of 20,000 recruits. Here, she talks to The Manufacturer’s editorial director, Nick Peters.

Congratulations on your appointment – what is it about engineering and the Royal Academy that has brought you to this point in your career?

Hayaatun Sillem, newly appointed chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering - image courtesy of The Manufacturer.
Hayaatun Sillem, newly appointed chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering – image courtesy of The Manufacturer.

Hayaatun Sillem: I’d been motivated in my prior career in medical research by the idea I could make a difference, but then I discovered that engineering is actually the route through which the potential that’s unlocked by scientific discovery is converted into tangible benefits for individuals and for society.

Through engineering, you create wealth, you create jobs, you create products and services that benefit people. Engineering and technology really do play a significant role in so many aspects of our life.

That was quite a profound moment for me, and it’s kept me in engineering ever since. I’ve moved in and out of the Academy, but always believed the Academy is an extraordinary place to be if you want to make a difference.

This is a national body with a leadership role, and our charitable objectives state that we’re here to promote engineering excellence for the benefit of society.

I know you felt there was little, if any, career guidance for graduates like you.

It’s interesting to look at the gender balance of those who pursue careers in biomedical sciences and medicine, and those that pursue careers in engineering.

There are so many commonalities between people who are not afraid of technical subjects – if they’re pursuing an academic route they’re probably taking quite similar subjects at GCSE and A level.

Both careers have high social impact. Medicine’s a profession; engineering’s a profession. And yet, the visibility of engineering as an exciting, rewarding career when you’re entering that key stage in your life and about to make decisions about your future career, it’s just so low.

There are many deeply held preconceptions around engineering. There’s the classic image of a white male in a hard hat and a hi-vis vest – and yes, there are engineering jobs that involve wearing a hard hat and a hi-vis vest, but there are so many other parts of engineering that offer something really quite different.

Our very narrow perceptions around engineering are limiting the accessibility of engineering careers to people from a whole range of backgrounds. It’s broader than just gender, and as a result of that we have an engineering profession that doesn’t reflect the society that we serve.

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Do you support the idea that engineers should get the level of respect they receive in Germany, where they get to call themselves Doktor. Why don’t we do the same in the UK? Here, anyone can call him or herself ‘an engineer’.

Over the years I’ve been involved in engineering, I’ve lost track of the number of times people have said, ‘“Engineer’ should be a protected title in this country. Why don’t we have the same status as our counterparts in other countries?’

Those are valid questions to ask, but when you look at what’s actually attracting people into the workplace, when you look at what the data say around the priorities for young people entering careers, what actually matters are things like, ‘Am I going to be able to pursue something I really enjoy and I’m interested in? Something that relates to my passions?

Young people want secure, well-paid careers where they can make a difference and do something that helps to change the world around them – engineering ticks all those boxes.
Young people want secure, well-paid careers where they can make a difference and do something that helps to change the world around them – engineering ticks all those boxes.

‘I want a career where I can make a difference, do something that helps to change the world around me. I want a career with variety, and yes, I want a career with job security where I’m going to be well-paid.’

Actually, engineering offers all those things, and we don’t need to start preventing other people from using the title engineer in order to better sell ourselves and to communicate what a modern career in engineering offers.

I think we should probably work from where we are now rather than say, ‘We wish we weren’t here.’ I think that approach would probably deliver the results we want in a more realistic timeframe.

It is becoming increasingly clear that to attract more people into engineering and manufacturing in general, we have to enthuse children at an early age. And it does happen; for example, in standout schools like Rode Heath Primary near Stoke-on-Trent, where children from six years onwards are taught to ‘Think like and Engineer!’.

A few years ago, we published a report, Thinking like an engineer. This really looked at what we term the ‘engineering habits of mind’. What are the ways of thinking that underpin careers in engineering?

We found that they are particularly dominant among early years children. That sense of wanting to investigate the world around you; that approach of creative problem solving. If one thing doesn’t work, let’s try something else.

Those are actually the characteristics that really define engineers, and there is no shortage of evidence that children from all backgrounds and all genders are displaying those. As children progress through the education system we need to be sure those characteristics aren’t buried.

That’s not a criticism of teachers, who have an extraordinary set of challenges to contend with, but I think there is something very interesting about nurturing an innate empathy and sympathy with engineering, and reclaiming engineering’s positive connotations and the things that we can all relate to around that word – ‘engineering’.

And of course it’s the attitudes of parents and grandparents that must change, because they have negative attitudes rooted in the cultural past and the historic de-industrialisation of the 1980s.

In many ways, what children at a school like Rode Heath are doing is actually exerting the pressure upwards, they’re educating parents about what engineering can do and be.

You’re absolutely right, and I think you’re also correct to diagnose the shared challenge that engineering and manufacturing have around broader public perceptions.

The Academy has recently launched a marketing campaign on social media called, ‘This is Engineering’. It’s tightly targeted at 13 to 18-year olds, and it’s trying to demonstrate that you can pursue the things you already love, those passions that you might already have as a teenager – gaming, sport, fashion or art – through engineering, and channel those passions into a really rewarding career.

This is Engineering - Royal Academy of Engineering

It’s asking young people to take a fresh look at engineering and to give them that sense of excitement and variety. We’re also targeting their key influencers, in particular parents and teachers.

We know they can be one of the barriers to getting the step change that we’re all seeking. We need them to help us get the absolute numbers coming through, and also a much more diverse pipeline of talent coming into engineering, one that is reflective of our society.

Our strategic partners, Engineering UK, offer programmes such as Tomorrow’s Engineers, which aims to ensure that young people get direct exposure to engineering within the school system.

But we’ve found that although a young person might have a really good school-based experience, when they go home and tell their parents about it, the response is, “Why would you want to be an engineer?” That’s undoing so much good work, so we do need to have a multi-pronged approach.

Many people still think social mobility is gauged by how many people from disadvantaged backgrounds end up at Oxbridge. My personal definition of social mobility is how many young people are able to enter a career, at whatever level of manufacturing, that enables them to earn well without debt, and get a decent house, decent job, raise a family and become taxpaying members of the economy.

Is that something that you share, or do you still believe that the academic route is the one?

In terms of defining social mobility I think we need to have a much broader approach. It’s not unimportant to look at who goes to the elite organisations that produce an overrepresentation of people in positions of influence. That’s perfectly legitimate, but it would be quite absurd for us to say that it is the only metric of interest.

Core skills in engineering technology are highly likely to serve you well in a workplace where automation and digitisation are playing increasingly important roles.
Core skills in engineering technology are highly likely to serve you well in a workplace where automation and digitisation are playing increasingly important roles.

In particular, the low status of vocational careers and vocational education in this country is absolutely harmful, both to us as a nation, but also to that sense of opportunity for young people.

I do think it is now changing. I think the growing focus on apprenticeships, and now high-level apprenticeships, is producing a greater awareness that this is a fantastic route through which you can learn and earn. But there’s a lot more to do.

It comes back to this point. People deserve to have rewarding careers, and to be able to pursue careers that are more likely to be resilient in a very uncertain future. Those core skills in engineering technology are highly likely to serve you well in a workplace where automation and digitisation are playing increasingly important roles.

The challenge is enormous, is it not?

Absolutely. A new Engineering UK report says that we need 124,000 people with engineering or technology core competencies each year. That’s looking at both technicians and graduates.

If you looked at just graduates, and said that every single person who is eligible to go into engineering in the UK on graduation actually took up a role, you’d still be facing a shortfall of 22,000 graduates per year. These are very large numbers.

Getting more females into engineering has been described as a quick win, which makes it sound a little technocratic. The fact is, young women, at least those ones I’ve spoken to, do find engineering incredibly rewarding, and they find the environments in which they work generally to be very, very good.

In fact, they almost don’t want to be seen as examples, to be regarded as something special. They just want to be regarded as engineers. This is a very encouraging development. Clearly, you, as head of the Royal Academy of Engineering, identify with this and I would have thought would do all you can to encourage it.

Definitely. Diversity and inclusion are very, very high up both my personal agenda and also the Academy’s agenda. We did a survey last year of 7,000 UK engineers working in industry, asking: ‘What is today’s culture within engineering? Is there an engineering culture, per se?’ We then looked at how inclusive it felt to people from different groups, and what could be done to make it more inclusive.

Hayaatun Sillem, newly appointed chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering - image courtesy of The Manufacturer.
This is a critical point in time for engineering, according to Dr Sillem – image courtesy of The Manufacturer.

As you would expect, there are some challenges, and those who are part of the majority group, typically white male engineers, tend to feel more included than those who come from black and minority ethnic groups, and who are women.

Having said that, one of the most encouraging statistics was that 87% of women engineers in the survey said that they would recommend engineering as a great career. That’s higher than the figure for all engineers, which was around 80%. I thought that was so encouraging.

We have to get that message out to more young people, because there just aren’t enough of them coming through the system. Also, we must not be complacent, because there are some genuine challenges – we need ensure that when we sell engineering as a great career, that people from different backgrounds who enter it truly experience it as inclusive.

We are doing a huge amount of work with employers, with the professional engineering institutions and with academics to ensure that we become a profession which is truly welcoming to people from all backgrounds; where people can bring their full self to work, and employers can know that they’re benefiting from their employees being on their A-game as much of the time as is realistically possible.

That 87% approval figure from women engineers is a great statistic to deploy during the Year of Engineering.

That’s a really good point. The Year of Engineering provides us as a profession with an opportunity to really showcase what engineering is, its true diversity and breadth, the contribution it makes to society, to the economy, and to do that at a time when government has given it a higher priority than it has for decades.

It’s also an opportunity for us to come together and try to speak with a united voice on key issues that really matter, such as what does engineering really offer as a career? We need to emphasise the things that are shared priorities, like creating a more diverse and more inclusive profession.

This is a critical point in time for engineering, and it coincides with some significant anniversaries. We’ve got the Institution of Civil Engineers’ 200th anniversary, and – fingers crossed – the opening of Crossrail. So, this is a good time to tell all our good-news stories about engineering, and to make sure that as a profession we’re working as hard as we can to deliver those really important outcomes for society.

Young engineering woman - Image Courtesy of Stratus
This is a critical point in time for engineering, and it coincides with some significant anniversaries.

I want to make sure that while we’re going out there and banging the drum and sending that positive message, we’re also making sure we’re doing everything we can to be an effective profession, to make sure that we can offer the very best of engineering and manufacturing to society.

I suppose, to be truly effective, the Year of Engineering needs a lasting legacy and not just be a one-off, year-long campaign that fizzles out when the budget is spent. What needs to be done to ensure its legacy?

I think whenever you have anything titled ‘The Year of’, the challenge is making sure that when you look back 10 years later that you can see that it wasn’t just a year of ribbon-cutting opportunities for ministers.

We’ve worked quite hard at the Academy with our partners in the profession to try to make sure that we’re using this spotlight on engineering to galvanise support and to accelerate, and then harness that momentum generated over the longer term.

When we created ‘This is Engineering’, we were explicit that it had to be a multi-year campaign. Launching it at the start of the Year of Engineering makes a huge amount of sense, so it’s one of the really concrete things that people can see happening now – it’s high profile and already having an impact.

I’m really pleased to say that within the first four weeks of the campaign, more than four million people from our target demographic viewed our videos, which is just fantastic.

That campaign is going to be sustained for at least three, but possibly five years – or even longer. We really want to build momentum during the Year of Engineering, and then sustain it.

We’re looking hard at how we can leverage the excitement that that campaign is generating to produce the lasting change that we all want so badly.


Dr Hayaatun Sillem was originally described in earlier versions of this story as President of the Royal Academy of Engineering. That position is of course held by Professor Dame Ann Dowling. We apologise to Dr Sillem and Professor Dowling for this error.