Opening paths for women in engineering

The Sheffield College - Olive Grove
The Sheffield College - Olive Grove
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The skills gap is slowing closing after millions of pounds were poured into new training centres in Sheffield – but only for boys.

Currently, just 14 per cent of students at the new University Technical College are girls.

And at the newly opened training centre at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, just four of the 160 engineering apprentices are female.

Nationally, science, technology and engineering disciplines remain overwhelmingly male. The UK has the lowest proportion of female engineers in Europe – 8.7 per cent compared to 26 per cent in Sweden and 29 per cent in Bulgaria.

It’s an issue that education and campaigners in Sheffield are rallying to tackle.

Two groups at Sheffield Hallam University – Women in Engineering, Science and Technology (WEST) and Women in Science Engineering and Technology (WiSET) run activities, projects and give talks in schools and colleges to encourage more girls and young women to consider studying those subjects. They also support those who have progressed into the sector.

Pat Morton, chair of WEST and director of WiSET, said: “Girls and women face a number of barriers – perceptions of engineering, discouragement from family and friends, lack of support from careers or teachers or male student peers. There is no silver bullet but by collaboration and commitment we can address this.”

The charity EngineeringUK has found girls are ruling themselves out of an engineering degree by age 14. Careers information, advice and guidance, in some cases, reinforce gender stereotypes.

Vision Critical research, published in 2013, suggests young people in general don’t know enough about engineering citing it as being “boring”, “oily”, “smelly”, “uncreative” and “factory-based”.

“Engineering is about designing, making and creating the innovative products that shape our world whether that’s artificial limbs, fashion and food or medicine, music and computers. It offers an exciting career choice for girls as well as boys but has historically suffered from an outdated image,” says Nick Crew, Principal of UTC Sheffield, which opened last year to meet the regional skills needs of employers including those in the advanced engineering and manufacturing sector.

One of the UTC’s priorities is to increase the number of young women taking up those subjects. Currently, 14 per cent of students are girls. “We want to break through those barriers to inspire the next generation of talent,” says Nick.

And there are plenty of opportunities.

The number of engineering-related apprentices and graduates needs to double by 2020 to plug the skills gap, according to EngineeringUK.

At The Sheffield College plans are under way for a £6.8m upgrade from September 2015 to engineering facilities with the launch of new courses including robotics, control systems engineering, pneumatics and hydraulics, programmable logic control, motor sport, specialist welding and fabrication and metallurgy, as well as sustainable development, and a raft of new apprenticeships.

Julie Byrne, principal of Sheffield City College and The Sheffield College of Applied Engineering, says: “The engineering sector has a crucial role to play in delivering growth and its profile is sharply on the rise. The economy desperately needs more young men and women to become engineers. Our upgrade and plans are very much influenced by meeting the region’s skills shortages.”

Sheffield Heeley MP Meg Munn is patron of the Women’s Engineering Society, and campaigns regionally and nationally on the issue, agrees. “We need to encourage more young people to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and maths to ensure we have the right skills to both keep the country’s economy growing and tackle the big challenges facing the world,” she says.

Despite the challenges, retired mechanic Ros Wollen, a founder trustee of WEST, remains cautiously optimistic. “We have a proud history in Sheffield of tradeswomen including self-employed builders, electricians and plasterers. That has made Sheffield better placed compared with other cities. The culture is slowly changing.”