By Jo Mannan, Production Engineering Capability Manager at AWE, member of The 5% Club
For years, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics skills have been integral to the UK’s economic success.
The STEM disciplines have long been viewed the bedrock of research and innovation underpinning high-value products and services. They are the subjects which provided the foundations on which British innovation was built.
Yet even now the selling of STEM subjects at school and the recruitment of female engineers remains an on-going problem. This is why it is so poignant that National Women in Engineering Day comes at a time when female engineers are needed more than ever to close the gender gap and sustain Britain’s economy.
The importance of having a strong, talented pipeline of engineers is reflected in the fact that in 2013 the turnover of all engineering firms exceeded £1 trillion, representing nearly a quarter of all UK enterprises.  Last year, the engineering industry, reportedly represented 19.5% of the UK’s workforce, a key driver in sustaining and developing the UK’s economy and providing the materials both society and industry need to thrive.
By promoting diversity and inclusion in the STEM sector, that pipeline can be made even more robust, perhaps even more innovative. This is why greater effort needs to be made to encourage women into the sector.
The stigma attached to female in the engineering industry still exists, with many assuming Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics are subjects for male students, restricting the amount of women who pursue careers in engineering and allowing the skills crisis to become ever more concerning.
The most recent statistics from WISE, the campaign that promotes Women in Science and Engineering, states that women only make up around 13% of the workforce in STEM occupations, the lowest rate in all the European countries.
As part of planning for economic growth as a country, we have to make sure we have the right pipeline of talent and skills to deliver. There is plenty of good work being undertaken by Government and professional bodies such as the Royal Academy of Engineering, but more needs to be done in industry, to ultimately create the jobs and play a vital part on the demand side.
Moreover, on top of being good for tackling youth unemployment, and therefore enabling the workforce and its growth, having more women on a team is highly beneficial for businesses. Women solve problems differently to their male peers, they see different issues and different answers. By diversifying perspectives, skills and voices, businesses become stronger, more productive and more resilient. This makes closing the gender gap an even more integral business need. After all, engineering is so diverse in its nature. Once synonymous with the world of engines and moving parts, it now embraces so much in technology, medicine and manufacturing.
And as it is a business need, it is up to businesses to take the initiative. Businesses have the power to truly, actively, change how STEM industries are perceived.
By providing high quality training routes into engineering careers for women and working with schools, colleges and universities to leverage this, businesses can help dissolve the stigma and provide plentiful careers for women in engineering.
This is a common perception I share with the other British engineering companies that are part of The 5% Club who believe apprentice, graduate and sponsored student training schemes provide the answer to alleviating the skills crisis, youth unemployment and the gender gap in STEM subjects.
Now with 97 businesses in the campaign all striving towards a brighter future for our young people, The 5% Club members share best practice about issues in the industry such as encouraging more women to pursue careers in engineering.
AWE is a company with a long tradition of running a successful engineering apprenticeship scheme. AWE apprentices are one of the most integral parts of our organisation making it a natural move for us to join The 5% Club eighteen months ago. Currently, 11% of our workforce is made up of former apprentices, many of whom have enjoyed long and rewarding careers at AWE.
As well as providing high quality engineering careers to young people, we pride ourselves in being at the forefront of promoting women in STEM. Last year, two of our employees were nominated for the 2014 WISE Awards, the most prestigious awards recognising organisations and individuals that inspire women in engineering.
Samantha McRae from the AWE skills academy has been a key figure in encouraging more women to take up engineering apprenticeships with AWE, whilst Jenny McGrowther has worked to improve diversity and inclusion.
AWE had the highest intake of female apprenticeships ever in 2014 and we are constantly striving to encourage young females to choose STEM disciplines in later and further education and ultimately to take up careers in STEM professions.
If more businesses start to take this proactive approach and raise awareness of formal training schemes, we can help close the gender gap, relieve the demand for STEM skills and help the UK remain competitive in the Global economy.
Apprenticeship and graduate programmes offer a great route into STEM careers and tackle the skills demand by immersing future engineers in a professional environment at the earliest opportunity.
With women like Samantha and Jenny trailblazing the way, it is clear change is inevitable and imminent. If businesses do not want to be left behind by these keen-minded problem solvers, it is time they embrace and pioneer diversity.
By engaging, inspiring and supporting young women to achieve their potential in engineering, we can help them become the industry leaders of tomorrow.