Upgrading our kerb appeal

Writing this blog on National Women in Engineering Day, 23rd June, it is reasonable to expect this post to lament the woeful representation of women engineers in our industry (just 10%, the lowest in Europe), or their similar minority across ICE membership grades (also hovering, by depressing coincidence, at 10%).

The need for more women in engineering is just one part of the wider discussion about future skills shortages across infrastructure.
The need for more women in engineering is just one part of the wider discussion about future skills shortages across infrastructure.

You might also expect to read about the oft-quoted fact that companies with more diverse boards – and specifically with more women on those boards – significantly outperform their rivals in terms of sales, return on investment and return on equity.

But no. Rather than any of that, I'd like to dig more deeply and think about what we can do to avoid having to carry on this conversation for another 5, 10 or even 20 years.

The need for more women in engineering is just one part of the wider discussion about future skills shortages across infrastructure. Filling our glasses a little, let's just pause a moment and consider how lucky we are to work in an industry where we can look ahead and see a rising and evolving demand for skills.

Next, I'd ask you to turn your minds to the question lurking behind the statistics.

Why is it that we have to work so hard to attract the right level and quality of talent – men and women – to our front door?

Wouldn't it be transformational to have an industry where bright young people seeking meaningful careers are queuing up to join us, not because we've cajoled, persuaded and pestered them but because they already knew – had always known - about the opportunities on offer.

To me, a key part of the answer lies in our kerb appeal. Instead of putting up with being the quiet and unassuming little house next door to the snazzy mega-mansions of management consultancy, medicine, law or finance, to name a few, why don't we make an active decision to upgrade ourselves?

If you'll forgive me for carrying this metaphor one step further, let's think about what would appear on our sales particulars right now. The reality is that much of the page would be blank or out of focus for the vast majority, apart from a few images of men in hard hats and fluorescent jackets lurking in the corners. Compare that to the equivalent for medicine: society – including children – has a reasonable understanding of what that profession does, because almost everyone has experienced aspects of it first-hand.

It is a terrible irony that we all know that engineering and infrastructure is everywhere and yet it is largely invisible because it is so closely woven into the fabric of everyday life.

The reality is that most young people today simply do not know what professional engineers do. And why should they? We haven't yet done a good enough job of explaining it to them.

So how do we turn this around?

First, I'd suggest that we need to treat our upgrade as a major project. After all, we're pretty good at delivering those. In our day-jobs, do we leave a self-selected assortment of well-intentioned people to go and speak on behalf of a critical infrastructure project without any guidance or alignment? Of course not. Do we allow this to proliferate without deadline, focus or message?

No. Given that we could probably all agree, in principle, on the importance of attracting, retaining and developing skilled people for our industry's future, it follows that we should take more care with our efforts to make it happen.

Linked with this, we need to work out what we're trying to say. This is surprisingly difficult as the details will vary according to our audience, and isn't overtly about fixing our kerb appeal. That's the outcome, not part of the input.

  • we deliver infrastructure that is the lifeblood of communities;
  • we have the ability to change people's lives for the better;
  • we offer meaningful and responsible careers

We have much of the content, but it needs to be properly shaped, structured and shared.

Finally, linked to this, we need to think about how we can have the greatest impact. This isn't a new problem and our professional institutions, corporate websites and client briefs are littered with attempts to address the issue. My observation here is that while leadership is needed, so is collaboration and coordination. We need to stop competing and recognise that this project is in our mutual interests.

Coming back to National Women in Engineering Day, it is a revelation that dozens of events are running across the country today. From a Guinness World Record attempt in London to ICE evening events, from thought-provoking industry days to Twitter #nwed thunderclaps.

There is a collective energy here that we could catch and turn to wider advantage.

Perhaps it's the kick-start we need?

About the author

Rachel Skinner works for WSP/Parson Brinckerhoff as the Director of Development.