Joan Murray, explains why she thinks it’s crucial to encourage more young people, especially girls, to take up engineering and technical roles.
When I think about my career in engineering and construction, it all starts from school days. The school I attended in Limerick, Ireland gave girls the same choices as boys and the freedom to follow paths which were not the traditional female ones. We were encouraged to study the so-called STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths), as well as the humanities. Such enlightened teaching created pupils who saw no restriction in what they chose to study and no barriers to what profession they might choose.
Thirty years on, and despite a number of initiatives to try to redress the balance, the statistics for girls studying STEM subjects, and going onto third level to continue those subjects, remains unchanged. While we have growing numbers of young people taking GCSE physics and A-level maths, at age 16 there is a steep drop off; in physics the number falls from around 150,000 to 32,000 including just 7,000 girls choosing to study the subject.
After school, I chose to study civil engineering at University in Dublin as I always wanted to be involved in something that would make a contribution to society. I think engineers do this on a daily basis through the creation of new buildings and structures which leave their mark on the landscape.
I joined Carillion as a graduate civil engineer and have worked for the company for the last 19 years. Over time, I moved from delivering in a technical role into a management role and now head up TPS Schal, the company’s construction compliance, surveying and project management division. The creative process is always challenging, never dull and no two days in this profession are ever the same.
But how do we inspire more young people, especially girls, to realise this potential and get them into jobs in engineering and other exciting technical sectors that are essential to our economic prosperity?
Younger people need to be able to see Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths as attractive areas to study and make careers. We are in a world where the media seems to glorify celebrity and fame, and while this no doubt has its attractions, we need to show a positive alternative.
I think we need leadership from the top down and plenty of initiatives from the grass roots up. In May of this year I attended the launch of a new campaign ‘Your Life’ in which the government welcomed over 170 leading businesses and institutions offering over 2,000 jobs and apprenticeships. This campaign, launched by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, aims to inspire and boost young people’s participation in the ‘STEM’ subjects by encouraging all of us to do more.
Across Carillion we looked at how we engage with a number of local schools each year, looking at construction, health and safety and sustainability, mainly aimed at primary schools. In response to this campaign, our commitment going forward will also include a new, more focused campaign in secondary schools, encouraging girls to choose STEM subjects for ‘A’ levels. The image of careers in technology and engineering has not always been female friendly and we will have ambassadors – women and men from our organisation – who will encourage young people to study these subjects. We have also announced a pledge to increase the number of women in apprenticeships fivefold over the next five years. I’d like to see more technical and engineering companies taking up the challenge to support and encourage women in their career choices.
Of course it’s not just about recruiting but also retaining women engineers. All my life I have had to get used to being in a small minority, where less than 10% of the workforce are female. So we have also recently launched Project SNOWE (Support Network for Operational Women Engineers). This is a voluntary initiative whereby women across the organisation can draw on the experience, support and encouragement of colleagues (male and female) when working in engineering roles. TPS Schal will roll this out across the business, engaging 20% of technical women in engineering in year one, increasing year on year over a five year period.
Whatever individual companies do, it is only by working together: government, business and schools that we can truly make a step change in the perception and image of engineering and technology. It will take time. But by doing so we will be substantially widening the talent pool available to future employers and so decrease the skills shortage in the UK and that can only be a good thing for us all.
Joan Murray is TPS Schal director and heads Carillion’s construction compliance, surveying and project management division