The government’s newest initiative couldn’t have come at a better time for a sector trying to blow open its gender gap, writes Ann Watson

2018 is shaping up to be a pretty important year for those of us involved in engineering skills, all things considered. The government has promised to “consult” on letting us use apprenticeship funding more flexibly, which will hopefully make it easier for bigger employers to support their supply chains to meet their skills needs.

The development of T-levels continues at pace, with the Institute for Apprenticeships set to take on the responsibility for their development by the year’s end. And a potential revolution in how we develop talent is set to start at the New Model in Technology and Engineering institution in Herefordshire, where creativity and aptitude will matter more than which particular A-levels applicants have got.

It’s all irrelevant if we don’t have people who actually want to become engineers

However, this is all institutional and governmental. It’s important that we get the right blend of policies to support employers and educational institutions in their quest to secure the skills base the engineering sector needs.

Given some estimates that we need around a million new entrants, we can’t afford to hang around, but it’s all irrelevant if we don’t have people who actually want to become engineers. And that’s why I’m delighted that 2018 is also going to be “the Year of Engineering”.

Government-created and industry-backed, the Year of Engineering is a year-long campaign to connect more young people with our sector. It’s a golden opportunity, perhaps once-in-a-generation, for us to show that the tired old stereotypes of men in dirty overalls handling spanners simply do not apply any more.

Modern engineering is a high-tech, skilled sector in which creativity and problem-solving skills are becoming increasingly important. A visit to a modern, state-of-the-art engineering facility can feel more like a visit to a hospital: they’re so clean and so controlled.

Modern engineering is about meeting society’s biggest challenges head-on, from ageing to water supply. It’s about making a real, lasting difference. Few careers can match it for satisfaction.

You may ask why, if engineering is such a great sector to work in, we have continuing skills shortages. And you may ask why, if engineering is a sector where anyone can get ahead, just one per cent of parents aspire for their daughters to become engineers, and why just six per cent of registered engineers and technicians in the UK are female (the lowest percentage in Europe).

Part of the problem is patchy careers advice

Part of the problem is patchy careers advice; the Year of Engineering needs to be the start of a consistent cycle of engagement between the worlds of engineering and education. We don’t just need careers talks and facility visits this year, we need them every year – this cannot be a one-year initiative.

It’s not just young people that we need to reach, of course. Parents exert a huge amount of influence over their children, and if their perception of engineering is outdated, it will be harder to convince their children. This is especially important in the case of girls. If we’re going to beat our skills shortage, and if we’re going to get the very best out of everyone who has the potential to be an engineer, then we need to bust through our massive gender gap, and quickly.

FE Week readers have an enormous role to play in making sure that the Year of Engineering is the success that it needs to be. If you’re working at a college, get involved. Throw open your doors for a local engineering company to come in and talk to your students. Take your students on a trip to a facility. Get parents in for an open evening where they can find out for themselves the reality of modern engineering. Colleges are the lifeblood of the skills system, and you have in your gift the potential to engineer a real difference to the future of your students, to the future of UK engineering, and to the future of our country.

Ann Watson is chief executive of Semta