As part of his dissertation research, Johnny Graham ran educational workshops on civil engineering to almost 200 children in Northern Ireland schools, changing their perceptions of the industry and encouraging budding engineers

The recession in the UK has had a profound impact on the engineering and construction industries – not only financially, but also socio-economically. A brain drain, which has come about due to the misconception that the construction industry is still suffering, has created a crisis due to a skills shortage.

The industry will now have to rebuild itself, especially in terms of narrowing the skills gap of those entering into higher-level education and considering a career in engineering and construction. As engineering and construction jobs start to increase, there appears to be a lack of people ready and able to fill the gap. This has potential knock-on implications for our economy.

Unfortunately, since the recession, the message that engineering and construction is growing exponentially has been lost in the mainstream media. The lasting damage of the recession has been that many believe there is still an uncertainty in these jobs and many who simply wanted a job in this area emigrated, where it was widely reported that pay was higher and jobs were plentiful.

Since then, a lot of myths have overshadowed the truth of the situation. To dispel these myths, it is vitally important that we as an industry look at our children and young people who from a young age are already carving their career paths.

During my research I was able to discover the variables behind why a skills gap has developed, the differences between genders in considering a civil and construction engineering job and explore and illuminate how any potential skill shortage may be addressed.

The creation of strategic links between school, universities and colleges are vital if we are to narrow our increasing skills gap. This will, in turn, provide many who once thought a career in civil and construction engineering was unrealistic to change their perceptions. This finding comes from research undertaken in five secondary schools, where young people were at an age to pick subjects and choose a career path.

The research demonstrates that through a simple 45-minute workshop, young people’s perceptions about engineering can be changed. Organisations such as professional engineering institutes, the UK’s Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA), education authorities and career-guidance teachers could take advantage of the research and sharing the research findings will serve as a strategic link to help promote any recommendations suggested.

Research findings

Participating students as part of the educational workshop on the ‘role of a civil engineer’. Each class received a workshop from me where I explained the role of a civil engineer, which included answering any questions. I began the workshop by using information supplied by the students in an anonymous questionnaire completed prior to the workshop – from this, I had learned that 75 per cent of students felt they had below-average knowledge of the civil engineering profession. This figure fell to 15 per cent after the 45-minute workshop.

Such a dramatic decrease proves that simple engagement and a strategic link between a profession and young people can significantly improve knowledge, hence changing perceptions. Ultimately, this could lead to more people choosing a career in engineering.

Career guidance is one of the biggest factors that need to be considered. A school will have in place career guidance teachers. Therefore not only is it important that young people are provided with the appropriate career advice but that the teachers themselves are armed and well equipped with knowledge which may be provided through the industry itself via professional institutes.

The UK already has a ‘Bridges to Schools’ strategic-link process in place throughout primary education (in Ireland, the STEPS initiative also runs outreach programmes, whereby engineers volunteer to visit schools and talk about their work and the profession). I believe that given the results that have come from carrying out a simple 45-minute workshop, careers teachers should be given the same workshop at an advanced level so as to impart vital knowledge and encourage more young people into taking this career path.

The results from my research certainly do call into question the career guidance available to schoolchildren transitioning from second-level education to third level. All children should be equipped with, at the very least, a basic knowledge of various different careers. Given that the construction sector has been demonstrated to be so important to the UK economy, it is imperative that the educational system imparts knowledge to transitioning schoolchildren in relation to a potential career in civil or construction engineering.

It will remain very difficult to attract the number of students required by the civil and construction engineering profession, if students transitioning from second to third-level education are not equipped with the required knowledge of a civil engineer’s actual profession, and what opportunities are available to someone who pursues a career in civil engineering.

Gender differences

Gender difference is a concerning trend that has affected the engineering industry over many decades. This was exhibited in my findings, as boys surveyed were more likely to consider a career in civil engineering than their female counterparts. During discussions with my working groups, girls sampled did say that they felt the industry was male dominated and ‘not for them’.

This is a shame for our industry and, once again, substantiates and verifies yet more mistruths about our industry – i.e., that it is for males only. Women can offer companies – and the larger civil and construction engineering industry – so much more than just a ‘hands on, manual labour’ approach.

This industry is so much more than that; it is a creative and professional industry in which attention to detail is key and in which a number of STEM subjects work in tandem.

We now operate in an educational system in which STEM subjects are heavily endorsed, yet the outcomes have not been seen so far in this industry. Strategic links are vital in aiding girls, in particular, to consider engineering as a career path. This is once again shown through the investigations I undertook.

For example, a surprising element of my research shows that 31 per cent of respondents stated that they would consider a career as civil engineer ‘somewhat’, ‘likely’ or ‘to a great extent’. This is significantly greater than what would have been expected, given the manner in which women are underrepresented within the sector.

Perhaps this is something that needs to be more carefully considered. I have suggested that STEM workshops for girls, with a focus on the career outcomes such as engineering, could be held within schools. It is key to address the gender imbalance so as to help engineering companies to flourish and to encourage fresh, new ideas within the engineering profession.

Barriers to entering engineering

It would seem from my research that there are areas in which myths surrounding civil and construction engineering have been allowed to perpetuate. Overall, there have been both misinformation and a lack of information coming from the general public and mainstream media.

The analysis shows that prior to undertaking the workshop, some 78% of the students surveyed did not give civil engineering much consideration as a future career choice, rating it ‘not at all’ or ‘possibly’. However, following the workshop, this fell to 29%, a reduction of just under 50%. Conversely, 15% of students stated that they were considering a career in civil engineering; however, following taking part in the workshop, this rose to 51%.

Given the shortfall of knowledge amongst the student in relation to the role of the civil and construction engineer, it would be impossible to expect these students unfamiliar with the profession to consider it as a career path. It is clear to see that following the workshop, which identified the role of the engineer, the number of students who would consider the role rose significantly.

However, consideration must be given to what has influenced their decisions such as other classmates, the effectiveness of the workshop facilitator and those who many have already chosen their career path. Yet this research would appear to suggest that over half of the students that took part in the surveys are open to persuasion in relation to their career path.

Of those surveyed, the picture painted was positive on the whole as the highest response stated that their decision was influenced by lack of knowledge – something easily solved through even a short workshop. Other influences included: financial motivations, family, travel opportunities, working conditions and available jobs within the industry.

Our skill shortage has resulted from a combination of factors such as: the past global recession, perception of the profession, gender imbalance, emigration and a diversifying construction industry which requires different skills than the construction industry of the past. This skill shortage will increase if we do not put a plan into motion. The reality of the situation facing civil engineering and the construction industry points to the fact that this skills shortage will be more acutely felt over coming years as the industry continues to grow and expand in a post-recession era.

Students were keen to learn about the profession. This willingness acts as a catalyst to allow information to then be passed on easily. It shows that career guidance teachers need to engage with professionals to learn firsthand about the profession before imparting what could be misinformation about the industry. This will form a strategic link between education and the engineering industry.

Education and restoring reputation

This research is important to the industry as engineering and construction has chronically suffered from a post-recession fatigue in building its own reputation back up. Yet, it can be easily promoted and can once again become an attractive profession to all, with gender imbalance erased. Of course, this cannot be done in isolation.

Bodies such as professional institutes, the CCEA and education authorities could learn from this research in terms of how they give career guidance, not just for engineering roles. Those who will hopefully benefit in the future from a strategic link between education and the industry will also need to access the research undertaken to see how we can all move forward together. Bodies such as professional institutes, the CCEA and the education authorities will therefore all have a role to play.

With the main influence in choosing a career path proving to be knowledge, it shows that there is ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ for this booming industry. It is not a problem easily solved, but it must be done now so as to reverse a trend. If that trend is not reversed, it could spell disaster for an industry that needs skilled workers, ready to meet a demand after the turbulent recession years.

There is a bright future ahead for our industry. However, it begins with equipping young people with knowledge. We need to be strategic in order to provide the launchpad into this wonderful industry and this is best done through education. Now is the time to put plans into action. Knowledge is power and so we could have a powerful workforce, given the right knowledge is imparted about our industry.

Jonathan Graham Tech IEI MCIHT – IT Sligo BSc (Hons) Student
Daniel Clarke Hagan – IT Sligo BSc (Hons) Lecturer O'RiordanCivilcivil,education,jobs,STEPS
The recession in the UK has had a profound impact on the engineering and construction industries – not only financially, but also socio-economically. A brain drain, which has come about due to the misconception that the construction industry is still suffering, has created a crisis due to a skills...