Don't blame the teachers for a lack of engineers: we need to start the conversation at home

After 16 years of reporting on industry for The Times and many other publications, I can say that I am never happier than putting on a hard hat and steel-capped boots. 

Over the years, I have visited Sellafield nuclear power station, travelled 200 miles across the North Sea to visit an oil platform, flown across one of the UK’s biggest off-shore wind farms and visited an early waste-to-energy plant on the Isle of Wight. I have been to dockyards to visit naval frigates and flown to California to see Boeing’s most popular aircraft. I’ve even walked through London sewers with Thames Water. (Tours tend to start under the French embassy, where the sewage smells faintly of Claret.)

I’ve loved it all and frequently I have asked myself why I chose to study English at degree level, when such an exciting, reliable, well-paid and global career could have been mine had I opted for sciences.

It’s not as though I didn’t vaguely know about “engineering”. My state girls school held annual days with Women in Science and Engineering where we worked in teams to build towers as tall as the school hall out of paper.

But when it came to thinking about my own future I had no positive engineering models at all. Frankly, it was not all the school’s fault. As an adult, I’ve since realised that three of my uncles were engineers in different sectors.  Yet no one in the family talked about the diversity of jobs that engineers do or how science could lead to really interesting careers. 

It is something I’ve tried to do with my own children, particularly my daughter. My motivation to do this has increased, as I have seen the huge range of vacancies and skill shortages that are available in almost all STEM-related industries in the UK. This is not a challenge we can lay simply at the door of already-pressed teachers. 

Changing the way we talk about engineering has to start at home. Get out the lego bricks, the train tracks and the paper planes, girls. The world is your oyster.

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