Analysis

Bridging the engineering skills gap

1st August 2022
Kiera Sowery

It is no secret that the demand for engineers continues to exceed supply, and much more needs to be done to encourage young people to pursue a STEM education and career. Throughout the last 10 months working at Student Circuit, I’ve heard countless industry experts voice their concerns regarding the engineering skills gap, and how we can rally together to solve the problem.

This article originally appeared in the July'22 magazine issue of Electronic Specifier Design – see ES's Magazine Archives for more featured publications.

Of course, not everyone wants to be an engineer, but that’s beside the point. The point being to create a society where everyone, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, or class has access to equal opportunities.

Creating equal access

I often ask when people’s initial interest in STEM was sparked, referring to this as the ‘lightbulb’ moment. Unsurprisingly, most people I’ve had conversations with can pinpoint a specific eureka moment where their love for STEM began. What’s interesting is this moment also tends to be during primary school.

This shows that to inspire the next generation, children need to be introduced to the subject as early as possible. Instead of girls growing up thinking that their options are limited to becoming a nurse, teacher or air hostess for example, and other children’s options are limited due to their background, we need to create a society of representation. We need to get to these students before these stereotypes are ingrained. It’s much easier to become something when you have a role model. Specifically, a strong positive connection must be made between engineering and girls to reinforce the message that there is a common connection.

A greater introduction of STEM ambassadors and exposure to discussions in the industry from as young as KS2 is imperative to challenging these stereotypes.

Creating equal access also refers to ensuring these role models are showcased to rural communities, and that they are also provided with external support from STEM educators.

Having engineering projects in the classroom for young people to develop skills such as creative thinking and problem solving, whilst introducing practical aspects of engineering, could be the answer here. Finding ways to integrate the STEM curriculum in an interesting way through face to face and virtual engagement is important as when given the opportunity, children are engaged.

Understanding the opportunities

Once an initial interest has been sparked, the next challenge is encouraging students to stick with it and ensure they understand the opportunities available. A huge part of the problem is this lack of understanding, not just for students, but for parents and teachers. We need to think about educating parents, teachers and students across the board.

Access should be given to information, case studies and STEM ambassadors with information from a diverse range of roles, so students can see the required skills and various routes into engineering and technology roles, allowing them to broaden their horizons.

Secondary schools need to make it their responsibility to ensure all students understand every opportunity available to them, and not just the university pathway. The value of apprenticeships specifically is something that needs to be vocalised. Everyone tends to understand the benefits of attending university, however there isn’t the same confidence with achieving a qualification from an apprenticeship.

An issue here is a lack of understanding from a teaching point of view. Of course, many teachers aren’t specifically trained in STEM, and apprenticeships, therefore offering career advice might seem daunting to them. This could be why they revert back to speaking about university as it’s considered a safer option to discuss.

But apprenticeships are an essential component to bridging the engineering skills gap, and people need to recognise they are important and viable in education.

It’s vital to focus on upskilling academic staff so they are equipped with the knowledge to pass onto children, giving them the opportunity to be curious, as children often are! A key way to do this is for engineers to become teachers themselves, so they have the well-rounded knowledge and passion that is so important to create that initial spark in the younger generation.

Parents of students have got plenty of opinions and are looking for the best route for their children, therefore its vital that they have access to this information too.

Providing continued support

This encouragement and support shouldn’t stop after students choose to study a STEM subject at university, or to complete an apprenticeship.

There is a strong, specific need to provide continued support for female undergraduates to boost confidence and provide networking opportunities.

Support should also be available, so students feel comfortable reaching out later down the line to facilitate life-long learning and access further training. This could be through taking part in a refresher, a short course, or a postgraduate degree.

Over the next five years

Things are looking up, and we are certainly in a better position now as opposed to 10, even five years ago due to a massive effort from lots of people across all industries.

In the next five years the focus should shift to primary age children to help bridge the gap. Focusing on skills that can be applied to different disciplines such as resilience, creativity, maths and science can be built on throughout the education system. Taking a leap of faith and influencing children from as young an age as possible is what is important. This begins with assessing the education system and the way children are taught. It’s vital that every child is given the same opportunities and to do this, the education system must be universal.

 

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