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Lauren Cunningham


How to close the skills (and gender) gap in engineering: Building a clearer pathway to industry


In the engineering industry, either the limelight tends to fall on the latest spectacular piece of infrastructure, or the spotlight is cast upon the poor state of our existing infrastructure, whether that be around unreliable public transport or the condition of our strategic road network.

As a young engineer, this scares me somewhat. Without immediate action to combat the current skills gap, maintaining our existing infrastructure – let alone improving it with society-transforming concepts and creations – is going to be an uphill struggle.

Below, I’d like to highlight three key ways in which we can work to make a difference, close the skills gap and make the engineering & construction industry a more attractive and inclusive sector.

#1: An industry-recognised (and -supported) built environment qualification

As many will have seen, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) have recently received support from the Houses of Parliament for to produce a built environment qualification which could be implemented into high schools and colleges across the UK https://lnkd.in/dVJuriFk.

Fortunately, a reliable built environment qualification: “Design Engineer Construct!” (known familiarly as ‘DEC’) already exists and it provided me, and many others like me, with a pathway into industry from 12 years old. DEC enabled me to work with industry professionals and advanced digital tools from a young age. At 16 years old, I had the experience maturity and grades to access an advanced apprenticeship or choose to advance to DEC Level 3. I chose the former, knowing I also had the commitment, knowledge and skills to become a civil engineer.

The DEC programme’s success lies in the industry funded ‘Adopt a School’ scheme which supports an organisation to help the development of the teacher and students. My school was adopted by Laing O’Rourke and the help their engineers brought to my classroom influenced and inspired me to be like them. Not every orgaisation wants to establish a long term relationship with a school and hence the difficulty of rolling this out into every school and college across the UK. However, I believe it is also due to the lack of awareness of the qualification..

In answer to the RICS, I’m not sure we need another qualification. DEC has got me to where I am now and continues to do so for others. One thing is for sure, it needs to have the respect and regard of a GCSE.

#2: Wider, deeper investment in teachers

As an industry we regularly participate in STEM events, careers fairs, school presentations etc, which are excellent, but unfortunately often lead to very limited traction. In my experience, a well-established engineer presenting a black and white PowerPoint is not going to do anything to engage young people and ultimately combat the skills gap crisis.

The funding from industry and awarding bodies is obscene when it comes to supporting these events which may indeed generate interest at 12 or 13 years old. But that initial buzz is not sustained, and there is no way to meaningfully pursue this interest until a student becomes old enough to opt for a formal apprenticeship or university place. So, what do they do then? Was the event even worthwhile or simply a tick-box for an industry KPI?

I believe the money should be redirected into teacher development and a pathway to industry so that students who do want to pursue a career in our sector, are onwardly studying engineering and the ‘bug’ for changing the world around us isn’t lost as soon as the promotional sweets are handed out at the end of the event. The impact of teacher development was fundamental to my career choice. My teacher was invested in and funded by a large-scale contractor, where I was fortunate enough to be able to study DEC from being 12 to 16 years old, where I then opted for an apprenticeship.

From my experience, the impact of teacher development was fundamental to my career choice. My teacher accessed such development and his own enthusiasm for the subject and the industry was inspirational. I was fortunate enough to study DEC with the same teacher from 12 to 16 years old. He was recognised with the ICE 200 Award by the Institution of Civil Engineers for his commitment and services to industry. The founder and creator, a female land surveyor, received an MBE for services to education. I think that’s amazing. A teacher gets an industry award and an industry professional, an education award. It that isn’t evidence that something is working, that knowledge transfer is happening in a school, I don’t know what is! Perhaps we need to train new teachers in such subjects at university? A teaching degree linked to industy practice? I still speak to my teacher, who’s now training new DEC teachers. He’s loving this new role and I knows he’s proud of his own ability to inspire them.

#3: Attracting interest early on

A stereotype that has been cascaded down for centuries is that girls don’t ‘do’ engineering – even in a relatively progressive society. Introducing a built environment qualification early on when children are developing and discovering their role models would tackle both the skills and gender gap at the same time, and act as a vital building block for promoting inclusivity and diversity issue we are facing.

Whenever I am asked what I study at university alongside my role at Sweco, and I respond with civil engineering, I gain 2 responses, 1) “What’s that?” or 2) “Wow, that’s an unusual choice for a girl”.

Having a respected built environment qualification, could become a natural mainstream fit within the English Baccalaureate (surely there’s room for one!), allowing students (and their teacher and parents)to understand the sector and everything it can offer. As a nation, we are very progressive in providing apprenticeships, degree apprenticeships, gap year studies, work experience, etc… but we’re only getting through to the students (and again their teacher and parents!) who are already aware. , The ongoing skills gap crisis proves there are not enough students who are aware, hence we should be attracting talent early on. When I talk to my past DEC classmates, they’re all doing well and thoroughly enjoying their job. Favourite subject at school? DEC.

Some people will argue that there aren’t specific pathways into Accountancy, Law, Medicine etc, but they are mainstream, everyone school knows and aspires to see students access them. We do not need to be as progressive in this area. It’s the lesser or even unknown high level career destinations such as chartered surveying, architectural technology and civil engineering where we collectively must strive to make some actual progress in effectively combatting the skills gap crisis. The engineering & construction is a hidden gem of a career path, and I hope collectively we can strive to make some tangible progress in untapping its potential…I am living proof that it can be done.