Research shows that the influence of family members on youngsters considering a career in engineering cannot be underestimated.
by Steven Bowman, Product, Wavecast Pro
For many engineers, their choice to enter the profession can, at least in part, be traced back to the early influence of a family member who worked within the industry. Whether it was their father, or mother, uncle or aunt, look over an engineer’s family tree and there is a strong likelihood that you’ll find more than a couple of other engineers lurking among its branches.
The question of just how significant family influence is on children’s future career choices was the subject of a five-year study by King’s College, London. The Aspires research study found that families exert considerable influence on students’ aspirations between the ages of 10 and 14, in particular their desire to pursue science-related careers such as engineering.
The research concluded that a child’s desire to become a scientist or engineer is largely contingent on whether or not their family has high levels of ‘science-capital’ – that is, science-related qualifications and interest in the field, along with whether or not there is someone close to them who works in a job related to science, technology, engineering or maths (Stem). It said that the likelihood of entering a profession such as engineering increases hugely if you have a family connection to the industry.
The findings of the study didn’t surprise Paul Jackson, chief executive of Engineering UK, himself a qualified electrical engineer who followed his father into the profession. Jackson thinks that families are an enormous influence on budding engineers, and can act as one of the most valuable recruitment mechanisms available to the profession. Indeed, he believes that having a family member in the industry made it a much easier and more natural choice for him.
It is no surprise, then, to find that Jackson’s 17-year-old daughter Alice is set to follow in his footsteps, having secured a place to study civil engineering at King’s College, London. A lover of art, maths and physics, she realised that a job in civil engineering would allow her to use her skills in all three subjects. Her father’s involvement in the sector as well as with the Big Bang Fair helped to inform her decision.
“I found out about the fair because of my dad’s involvement with it,” she says. “Before I went, I was interested in architecture but while at the fair I spoke to some civil engineers and discovered that was something I was more interested in.”
She agrees that she would encourage her children in the future to consider careers in engineering, but more importantly would encourage them to make informed decisions at A-level: “In my opinion maths and science are the best subjects to do because they leave you with so many options,” she says.
Emma Doherty, head of engineering at London Tramlink, is another engineer who believes that family influence cannot be underestimated. With an elder brother who is a mechanical engineer, a grandfather who worked as a telecoms engineer and a father who, while not in the profession, worked as an ammunitions technical officer, her family could well be described as having high levels of ‘science capital’.
Doherty says that many engineers she has met during her career have, like her, followed in a family member’s footsteps: “I think it runs in families,” she adds. “You do meet engineers, certainly in my field of civil engineering, whose father was also an engineer.”
For Doherty, her family’s involvement in engineering and other technical professions gave her insights that weren’t available to her from other sources such as school or the media: “In discussions with my father, he’d say that you can travel with jobs like this, you can go abroad; you’re doing things that change people’s lives.” Without the influence and encouragement of her family, she says, she probably wouldn’t have even considered engineering as an option for her.
From cases such as Doherty’s and Jackson’s it is clear that the influence of growing up with a family member in the industry can be significant. However, according to Atkins’ survey, Britain’s Got Talented Female Engineers, this may be of particular importance for women. This research found that four in ten of the female engineers questioned have an engineer in their family, most commonly their father.
For many with parents outside the industry, the family is still a significant influence on their career aspirations. But it appears that some parents are likely to actively discourage their daughters from entering engineering because of outdated stereotypes about the profession. The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering survey conducted earlier this year revealed that many parents of girls aged between 5 and 18 have prejudices against their daughters studying engineering and science and would not encourage them to do so.
Some 73% of mums and dads said they believed that subjects other than science or maths, such as English or art, offered better career opportunities for girls, while science, closely followed by engineering, offered the best opportunities for boys. The impact of these gender-bias beliefs is all too clear. Only 4,228 girls applied to read engineering at university last year, compared to 28,020 boys.
The King’s College research went further, finding that certain ethnic groups are also less likely to view engineering as a career for them, even if they are good at or enjoy Stem subjects in school. With Engineering UK estimating that we need to recruit 1.86 million people with engineering skills in the next six years to meet the demands of industry, it’s important to encourage children from diverse backgrounds into engineering.
Jackson says this is where industry needs to step in: “Young people may not have a father, mother, uncle or aunt in the industry,” he says, “but at least if we can bless them with a friendly face that can put engineering into context at their school we stand a chance of changing things in the future.”
There are dozens of projects run by companies and groups such as Engineering UK, many of which are supported by the IMechE, that are trying, and in many cases succeeding, to change stereotyped perceptions of the profession and to inspire children from all backgrounds to consider it as a career. Programmes such as the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths Network (Stemnet) and Engineering UK’s Tomorrow’s Engineers recruit ‘ambassadors’ to go into schools to talk about the work engineers do, run workshops and offer site visits to give insights on the industry.
These ambassadors not only create accessible role models for schoolchildren but often meet and speak to their parents to make them aware of the opportunities that engineering can give. Jackson says that programmes of this kind already appear to be working: “We are seeing a big shift in the increasing take-up of GCSE physics, and almost equal numbers of boys and girls at GCSE level. What we now need to see is that progressing beyond 16 as well.”
The Big Bang Fair is another valuable resource for parents and children alike, providing the chance for them to talk to engineers, watch live demonstrations, and get involved in activities that aim to transform their image of careers in science
The event’s reach is expanding every year, with tens of thousands of visitors attending and national news coverage spreading the word to families all around the UK.
For Jackson, the wonderful thing about the fair is the fact that it brings science and engineering to life. “It makes young people realise that maths and physics are about designing the world, not just subjects confined to your exercise book,” he says. “And the more that happens the more interested they get.” Encouragingly, girls are twice as likely to see engineering as a desirable career after they have attended the event.
So it seems that, with the successes of ambassador programmes and careers fairs, many more people will be seeing an engineer or two appearing on the family tree. Of course there is still a long way to go to ensure that many more children, no matter what their background, say that engineering is ‘for me’, particularly when large parts of our society still hold stereotyped ideas about the profession.
However Jackson feels that the industry’s hard work to improve the public perception of engineering has things moving in the right direction: “I think we have got the change in the attitudes of the general public, we’ve got awareness now, and we need to keep building on that so we get a better understanding that goes on beyond just awareness – and then we’ll have cracked it.”
The task is not easy, but it is necessary if we are to ensure we can meet the demand for an extra 1.86 million people with engineering skills in the next six years.