Joan Murray explains why she believes it is critical to encourage more young people, particularly girls, to pursue engineering and technical careers.
When I think about my engineering and construction career, it all starts in elementary school. Girls were given the same options as boys at the school I attended in Limerick, Ireland, as well as the freedom to pursue paths other than the traditional female ones. We were encouraged to study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects as well as the humanities. Such enlightened teaching produced students who saw no barriers to what they chose to study or what profession they might pursue.
Despite a number of initiatives to try to redress the balance, the statistics for girls studying STEM subjects and going on to third level to continue those subjects remain unchanged after thirty years. While the number of young people taking GCSE physics and A-level maths is increasing, there is a sharp drop off at the age of 16; in physics, the number falls from around 150,000 to 32,000, with only 7,000 girls choosing to study the subject.
After high school, I chose to study civil engineering at the University of Dublin because I had always wanted to be involved in something that would benefit society. Engineers, I believe, do this on a daily basis by constructing new buildings and structures that leave their imprint on the landscape.
I began working for Carillion as a graduate civil engineer and have been with the company for the past 19 years. I progressed from delivering in a technical role to managing TPS Schal, the company’s construction compliance, surveying, and project management division. The creative process is never boring, and no two days in this profession are ever the same.
But how do we encourage more young people, particularly girls, to realise their potential and pursue careers in engineering and other exciting technical fields that are critical to our economic prosperity?
Younger people must be able to see Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math as appealing fields in which to study and work. We live in a world where celebrity and fame seem to be glorified by the media, and while this has its appeal, we need to demonstrate a positive alternative.
I believe we require top-down leadership as well as numerous grassroots initiatives. In May of this year, I attended the launch of the government’s new ‘Your Life’ campaign, which welcomed over 170 leading businesses and institutions offering over 2,000 jobs and apprenticeships. The Chancellor of the Exchequer launched this campaign to inspire and boost young people’s participation in ‘STEM’ subjects by encouraging all of us to do more.
We examined how Carillion engages with a number of local schools each year, focusing on construction, health and safety, and sustainability, with a focus on primary schools. In response to this campaign, we will launch a new, more focused campaign in secondary schools to encourage girls to choose STEM subjects for ‘A’ levels. Careers in technology and engineering have not always had a positive image among women, and we will have ambassadors – women and men from our organisation – who will encourage young people to study these subjects. We have also pledged to more than fivefold the number of women in apprenticeships over the next five years. I’d like to see more technical and engineering firms take on the challenge of supporting and encouraging women’s career choices.
Of course, it is not only about recruiting but also about retaining female engineers. I’ve spent my entire life adjusting to being a member of a small minority, with women accounting for less than 10% of the workforce. As a result, we recently launched Project SNOWE (Support Network for Operational Women Engineers). This is a voluntary initiative in which women across the organisation can benefit from the experience, support, and encouragement of male and female colleagues when working in engineering roles. TPS Schal will implement this across the organisation, employing 20% of technical women in engineering in year one and increasing year on year over a five-year period.
Whatever individual companies do, we can only truly change the perception and image of engineering and technology by working together: government, business, and schools. It will take some time. However, by doing so, we will significantly broaden the talent pool available to future employers and thus reduce the skills shortage in the UK, which can only be a good thing for us all.