That young people’s attitudes and opinions align largely with their parents on many topics comes as no surprise, and attitudes to engineering appear to be no exception.
According to Engineering UK, a report linking the views of over 4,000 young people and their parents highlighted that almost 90% of young people whose parents said they were confident giving engineering careers advice to their child, showed interest in an engineering career.
Around 78% of children whose parents’ regularly took part in STEM activities with them were interested in engineering careers, and young people whose parents didn’t confidently understand what engineers do were less than half as likely to express an interest themselves.
The results suggest that interest in and perception of what engineers do, the engineering options available, and how to begin a career in engineering vary by gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic background which has led to the underrepresentation of certain demographic groups: only 16.5% of the engineering workforce are women compared with 47.7% of the national workforce and 11.4% of the engineering workforce are from minority ethnic backgrounds compared with 13.4% of the overall workforce. This indicates that the engineering sector currently draws its skills from a very narrow section of society.
Clearly, cultural and historic factors inform student choices, and the old, stubborn gender divide appears still to run through young people’s academic subject interests with boys appearing to be more interested in STEM subjects and girls in arts subjects, irrespective of aptitude. If this attitude is mirrored by parents, then inevitably, stereotypes continue to be reinforced. In addition, the correlation between socio-economic background and interest in engineering means that pupils from higher levels of education and higher income backgrounds are more likely to be interested than those from lower income or educational backgrounds.
Similarly, if young people have a perception of STEM subjects as too boring or too challenging then their engagement when it is compulsory and uptake when it is a choice is likely to be lower. Likewise, if they cannot see why they need to know or what the point of it is then they are less likely to persevere. A more vibrant connection between the academics of STEM and why it’s so important in pupils’ lives and the world they live in may be benefit pupil engagement. Inevitably, children’s perception and enjoyment of scientific subjects at school will affect their educational choices.
However, to expect parents with neither exposure nor experience of engineering to advocate an engineering career for their children is unrealistic, especially as there appears to be a disconnect between vocational and academic education. Parents may relate more to a career involving the manual application and fitting of engineering products rather than one involving the academic process behind them.
Yet, the historic choice between an academic and vocational route into work may no longer be mutually exclusive. Surely, the apprentice system provides an effective platform to learn and provide high levels of skill in complex industries. Surely, high levels of education provide broad learning, creativity, agility and intellectual excellence. And surely, the engineering industry needs both.
To engage young people who think that an engineering career is too challenging academically, then promoting and increasing technician level qualifications could reduce barriers to entry and increase awareness of engineering as an attractive and viable career choice, besides providing flexibility between vocational and academic routes and the subsequent overlap of opportunities.
Industry, engineers, and schools all have a role in promoting engineering as a career. Improving links between STEM-based industry and classroom STEM is key to igniting pupils’ awareness. Industry speakers, school visits to engineering sites and follow-up activities with continued engagement from engineering companies, plus school-based industry days and career advice all raise awareness.
Young people who know more about what engineers do and who attend STEM careers activities, especially when industry-based, are more likely to consider it for a career.
However, as young people’s perceptions of engineering as a career are so strongly associated with their parents’ opinions of it, then parental awareness and engagement with these industry links is key. The more parents are aware of engineering as viable career choice for their children, the more likely engineering is to become accessible to children from all backgrounds.
Put simply, if young people whose parents say they know what engineers do are more than twice as likely to express an interest in an engineering career than those whose parents say they do not, then more parents need to know.