Last week, we had some visitors to the University – boys and girls from a local school on a Maths experience day. For most of them, it will have been their first time at a University, the first step on a journey. In a few years, they will have choices about subjects to study at school and college and we hope the experience they have with us will inform these choices. It is interesting to think about the starting point of the engineering career journey. When do young people decide to take this path? What inspires and supports them?
Recently, I met Bill Harvey who decided to be an engineer when he was seven years old and was inspired by the magnificent Clifton suspension bridge. After that ‘nothing else would do’. On hearing that he wanted to build bridges, Bill’s grandfather advised ‘you need to become a Civil Engineer and you need to go to University.’ He encouraged Bill’s ambition and guided him in taking the next steps. Almost 60 years later, Bill is still inspired by his work as a structural engineer, expert on masonry arch bridges. In 2010, he became one of the engineers responsible for the care of the Clifton suspension bridge.
I was impressed that at such a young age, Bill made a conscious choice to pursue his interests and that this fascination with bridges remains to this day. On the engineering career journey, encouragement and guidance helps but this is not always available. In recent years, Engineering has something of an image problem. A survey reported by Professional Engineering Magazine reports that although almost a third of young people would consider a career in engineering, many had incorrect assumptions about the industry. These included thinking that it was mostly about physical labour or just about the car industry.
How do young people find out about engineering? Some may have friends or family members or attend an inspiring outreach event. There are many initiatives such as Tomorrow’s Engineers which provide more information and resources to guide young people. Social media also allows engineers to engage and communicate about their work. A really interesting initiative is ‘My Day Engineering’ this is a Facebook group and Twitter account which encourages engineers to share their daily work experience under the hashtag #mydayengineering . By following this, potential students can see the diversity of what engineers do all day and be encouraged to step in and find out more. Twitter is a surprisingly good meeting place for engineers. Perhaps the 140 character limit appeals.
As engineers, we need to think about communicating and encouraging others starting out on the journey. What can we do to encourage those first steps?