Engaging young people with engineering careers #buildingpassions

As I write this post I’m sitting in a school sports hall trying to interest the kids in engineering careers.

The problem is they aren’t really attracted by the discipline.

Mention maths and that particularly gets the cold shoulder.

By contrast the person with the fluffy dog which anyone can stroke and hug is like a magnet to teenage boys and girls.

How does one compete with such attractions?

You could train an animal or perhaps a cute-looking robot to design and build a structure.

My preference is to face the stark reality of the fact that maths still scares people. We have to lure them in without them knowing.

Therefore, we can’t oversell the immediate benefits of the profession until they are on board with the direction of travel. This takes careful planning across the ages and stages of education.

I have blogged elsewhere about the role of parents in their child’s education and how this relates to undergraduate level once their son or daughter becomes a legal adult in the UK.

To me good parents and carers have always been the key to unlocking career progress for young people at an early age. They set up the opportunities by helping to keep options open for their wards. Teenagers then take it forward with help from qualified adults in schools, colleges and then universities.

As always the devil is in the detail.

But reading my forthcoming book ‘Building Passions’ or Roma Agrawal’s BUILT may at least help get conversations started between parents and kids about the relevance of the built environment as a professional choice.

Have a look at a revamped website

My former employer the Institution of Structural Engineers has revamped its website into something much more user friendly and welcoming.

Have a look!

It now explains structural engineering in simpler language to a global audience of experts and non-experts.

My key audience when I was there was young people. In fact I still feature on the revamped website in a blog post about an exciting programme getting teenagers into structural engineering and architecture.

There are plenty of students out there who don’t fully understand their university and career options. In many cases this may be fine, but for some it could also mean the difference between a happy life and one where you are struggling to find your niche.

My major piece of careers advice to anyone considering their employment choices is to use any reasonable and ethical means available to find out the truth about a profession – this may include becoming a member of a body or tracking down and speaking directly to graduates and apprentices within a sector. Fortune favours the brave and employers will reward initiative with an opportunity to prove yourself.

Finally, there are always second chances and I am currently grasping one for myself by writing my first book much later than I had hoped to. This won’t be my sole occupation but an important part of who I am. It took me a long time to get here but it has been worth it.

NB: the image of the Forth Rail Bridge in this post reflects one of the banner images on the IStructE’s new website and is the iconic 19th Century structure built from the same Arrol steel used on Tower Bridge.

The end of the Year of Engineering but the start of a new age of UK design and build?

New Year’s Eve will mark the end of the Year of Engineering 2018.

This has been a UK Government led campaign to promote engineering as a career option to young people. Simultaneously, it coincided with the bicentenary of the founding of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1818 and the launch of a similar video-based campaign by the Royal Academy of Engineering called ‘This is Engineering’.

I have been privileged to be a small part of this all through my day job as Education Manager at the Institution of Structural Engineers. We published our own careers videos at the start of this year.

What can we now expect of the legacy?

To be honest it’s difficult to tell currently as the Year of Engineering website continues to list and seek submissions for engineering related events into 2019.

What would I like to happen?

I’d like the Government and the engineering sector to broaden out the messages to all those interested in careers in ‘design and build’, but particularly those defined audiences who could be helped to overcome any cultural or other barriers to success. This might include people with specific age, gender, race and other personal characteristics, depending on the nature of any barriers and the proposed solutions to removing them.

This could kick start a new era of design and build capturing the spirit of global volunteer programmes such as Bridges to Prosperity or the Grenfell Tower and similar schemes that have sprung up locally as a result of a terrible tragedy.

What has inspired people to build?

Why have some people decided they want to build structures?

This was the first question which entered my mind when I started my new job as Education Manager at the Institution of Structural Engineers in January 2016. I was curious to know why young people would want to become structural engineers.

After more than two years of thinking about his, which has included conversations with active structural engineers such as Roma Agrawal author of BUILT, as well as many others in the built environment, I have a few pointers which I list below.

  • There are some jobs which require inspiration to get the best out of them – there are others which don’t, and things like money or benefits in kind can be attractive enough to do them.
  • Building structures is certainly a type of occupation that DOES need inspiration for the best results. Uninspired structures are a blight on humanity and our environment. In some cases they not only dull our lives but harm them as well.
  • Young people like to be inspired by things. Ask a group of UK teenagers what they think of building as a profession and they will say it’s about bricks, concrete, hard hats, physical work and getting dirty. Nothing particularly inspiring there.
  • However ask them what architects do and they will go on about designing amazing houses with incredible features, quoting TV programmes and presenters.
  • Finally, ask them what a structural or civil engineer does. Be prepared for the worst ranging from complete ignorance to some obscure link to mending a car or the home plumbing.
  • There are youth campaigns now such as ‘This is Engineering’ which are trying to fight against the negative cultural stereotype – indeed, a new set of inspiring videos will be released this Monday showing teenagers the excitement of engineering, including a structural engineer helping earthquake victims to rebuild their lives.
  • I personally believe that history is another medium to show the value of building and associated professions to new audiences. Roma’s book BUILT has tried to do exactly this. Another is ‘Mr Barry’s War’ by Caroline Shenton which is now out in paperback and describes the trials and tribulations of the architect of the New Palace of Westminster in the 19th Century.

The final word on this?

Parents.

Yes we all have them and many of us are them. We try to guide our offspring down the right career paths for them. Some of us can be very pushy! We need to be convinced that a job in a specific sector will be fine for our children. We have prejudices about certain jobs. We also aspire to better things, sometimes using our children to achieve this for us. We need to rethink our attitudes and approaches to building structures.

A blue plaque by the end of the year?

I applied for an English Heritage Blue Plaque for Sir John Wolfe Barry at the end of 2015. It’s a long process which requires evidence and research on the individual concerned and the buildings linked to them.

I get occasional updates from English Heritage as to progress and am still optimistic that something will happen by the end of 2018, the centenary year of Wolfe Barry’s death. If I hear any news I’ll blog about it of course.

If the plaque has to wait until 2019, that’s not too bad as Tower Bridge will be celebrating 125 years since its completion in 1894. I believe there’s at least one book in the offing to commemorate this and I assume it will give due coverage to Sir John as the lead engineer.

As mentioned before, there has been plenty of celebration of engineering in this bicentenary year of the Institution of Civil Engineers which is also the UK Government’s Year of Engineering. There’s also been a great video campaign by the Royal Academy of Engineering to promote careers in the sector to young people. Finally, Roma Agrawal’s book BUILT is doing well and she is planning a version for young children, to help explain the stories behind structures and point out that while architects often get the credit for designing buildings, there are many others involved.

The BUILT environment

I often use the term ‘built environment’ to encompass a knowledge and skills sector that covers civil and structural engineering, architecture, construction, building services, surveying and other related disciplines.

This is an important sector for the world economy because without it we wouldn’t have much of the infrastructure we rely on in a civilised culture. It may also help us build the platform for expansion of humanity off the planet, an increasingly important issue given the ongoing risks to us of global warming, population increase and religious/cultural intolerance. These all mirror previous reasons for exodus if we look back at mass migrations of the past.

But ‘BUILT’ is also the title of Roma Agrawal’s first book which is reaching out to broad audiences with stories about building structures. For example, she describes the biological origins of bridge-building by looking at the amazing Darwin’s bark spider which can shoot 25 meter silk lines across rivers. Roma posits that perhaps one day humans will be able to do the same on a much larger scale with innovative new materials.

So the BUILT environment is a play on words.

It tries to capture the fact that we need to create a wide community of interest in the value of designing and making structures, particularly in those largely Western countries where this basic skill set has been superseded by the ability to argue a highly technical legal case before a judge, or undertake intricate surgery to keep bodies functioning longer than they might naturally be designed to do.

This is not to undermine those professions, but perhaps to re-balance things back to where they used to be in ages gone by. Hence the Year of Engineering in the UK this year and the associated longer termĀ ‘This is Engineering’ campaign. Not to forget the Institution of Civil Engineering’s 200th Anniversary in 2018 which includes celebrating 200 great global civil engineering related accomplishments during the course of the year. One of those added to the list is the foundation of the British Standards Institution (BSI) in 1901 by Sir John Wolfe Barry, more about which can be read on this website.