Person highlighting app plan drawings on a desk alongside an iPhone, mouse and pens

With Facebook set to announce this week that it will expand its presence in the UK by 50% when it opens its new London headquarters in 2017, employing an additional 500 employees, many of these new roles will be high-skilled engineering jobs as the UK is home to Facebook’s largest engineering base outside of the US. And only last week did Google announce a £1bn investment in a new London headquarters and the creation of 3,000 highly-skilled new jobs by 2020.

In general, the UK will need 745,000 additional workers with digital skills to meet rising demand from employers between 2013 and 2017, whilst in Engineering over 56,000 of jobs at level 3 (A-levels or equivalent) and 107,000 at level 4+ (undergraduate degree) are available each year.

However, all these figures can be compared to the measly 26,000 people currently entering engineering occupations with a level 3 qualification and 82,000 at level 4+ and we've such a dearth of talent that inventor, Sir James Dyson, is planning to open his own institute to address the skills shortage.

With so many vacancies, and such highly skilled, interesting careers, alongside the prospect of a  job for life, why aren’t there more students studying engineering and why are engineering firms not attracting more young people and what can be done about it?

Physics and maths come second

At A-level, traditional engineering gateway subjects such as maths, physics, and design and technology are declining with only 35,000 of students now taking A-level physics. Alongside changing the  perception of these A-level subjects to increase numbers, both universities and firms need to make sure that students who don’t take these subjects aren’t taken out of the engineering equation.

One initiative by the Open University, which has historically taken students from less non-traditional backgrounds, is to teach engineering without physics and maths. They then explain the maths and physics only when it is needed and in context, so students know how and when to apply it. Using their old method of teaching, which involved giving students stand-alone maths courses, they found that only a small percentage would survive maths long enough to graduate, whilst most continued to take these required courses until the failed them multiple times and gave up. You may think this a bit odd, however there are plenty of feats of inventions and discoveries that have come before an understanding of the underlying physics. For example, the steam engine came before our understanding of thermodynamics, and famously Dyson used 5,127 trial and error prototypes to perfect his cyclone vacuum.

This method might open up the world of engineering to those who have previously struggled with physics and most universities don't require a physics A-level when applying for an engineering degree.

Child drinking water from an outside tap

Re-branding engineering to solve the world's problems. Image credit: Gary Edenfield/flickr

The engineering re-brand

On a personal note, even my boyfriend (who has both engineer friends and family members) is confused about what an engineer really is. When watching a popular TV advert he announced 'this guy is the ultimate engineer, he can do everything!' 'No' I replied 'He's the ultimate mechanic.’ If people with connections to engineering don't know what it's really about, we've no hope for anyone else! For some reason, society's view of engineering is about fixing things that already exist, rather than designing, creating and developing solutions to current problems, and this perception of engineering pervades when thinking of studying it at university or via an apprenticeship. Parents are also guilty in stating that they don't want their children to have hands-on, dirty jobs, and most young people will get their advice from their parents.

Engineers are just as important as doctors and other highly-skilled professionals, they are doing as much good to society, and indeed the world would not run without engineers. We could re-name the engineering profession as the 'problem-solving' profession, as this is essentially what it is, and that it's something you could apply to any context that interests you.

Applying it to contexts that people feel strongly about is also another way to get more students to study engineering. In an BBC article focusing on the lack of female engineers, biomedical engineer Lina Nilsson, who works for a medical equipment company stated that when she was the innovation director in the Blum Center for developing economies at the University of California, Berkeley, the department started offering a postgraduate course on solutions for low-income communities. Half of the people who enrolled onto the course were women, and perhaps creating new courses which focus on solutions to problems is a way of introducing more students to engineering (as well as more women).

The UK is now following suit, with a new Master’s programme called Humanitarian Engineering at Warwick University. The programme is open to Bachelor’s students from a range of disciplines and its focuses include humanitarian law, logistics, global health, disaster resilience, renewable energy technologies, water and environmental management, and infrastructure. In this way, we're calling a range of people to solve society's problems.

We also need to pay our engineers more. 66.2% of the men and 47.4% of the women graduates in 2011 went on to work in engineering and technology, which leaves a good 43% not in the engineering profession after they graduate. With the average starting salary at £26,504 why would they join the profession if they can earn more as in the banking and consultancy sectors? Looking at other graduate schemes John Lewis pay £29,000 a year whilst Lidl pay a whopping £42,000 a year rising to £70,000 after four years.

Engineering isn’t a one-size-fits-all

We all have a picture in our heads of what an engineer looks like, and a quick Google offers little alternative:

Man with glasses testing an engine in an office

Image credit: DLR/wikicommons

However there isn’t a 'type' of engineer, with the engineering world encompassing a lot more than planes, trains and cars. Engineering is involved in far more industries than initially meets the eye, and your position in the engineering community can involve a number of roles whether it's developing software, designing prototype solutions, producing documentation for customers or testing potential products.

In a similar vein to Humanitarian Engineering, both universities and companies have to show people that for engineering to be successful, they need to employ a variety of people, from a variety of backgrounds offering different thought processes and solutions to a problem, and that everyone is a potential engineer.