Thursday 13 December 2018

Build up female workforce to ease engineer shortages

Stock Image
Stock Image

Maureen Lynch

Walk down any street in Dublin or Cork today and there is a good chance you'll spot cranes, diggers and builders at work.

A decade ago, such scenes were rare. When the recession hit, hundreds of thousands of people were put out of work, some virtually overnight. The cranes disappeared. Nearly half of all job losses were in construction and many skilled builders and engineers had to emigrate.

The story now looks very different. The construction sector is buoyant and looks set to create as many as 112,000 new jobs by the turn of the decade.

Last year, 36pc of all permanent positions advertised on Hays Ireland were in the construction and property sector. Early indications suggest this figure will rise again in 2018.

This recovery is undoubtedly a good thing - but increased business demand and the rapid advance of technology have combined to create a perfect storm. Many construction and engineering companies don't have the supply of engineering professionals needed to service clients or take on new projects.

Some will plug talent gaps by seeking to attract overseas talent; others will spend vast sums re-educating their workforce to address immediate shortages.

Aeronautical engineer Dr Norah Patten, guest speaker at Engineers Week last week
Aeronautical engineer Dr Norah Patten, guest speaker at Engineers Week last week

But a more far-sighted, sustainable solution is to hire more skilled women.

As we move from Engineers' Week 2018 towards International Women's Day this Thursday, it's a reminder that female participation in engineering has traditionally been low.

According to the Higher Education Authority, females make up less than 17pc of all enrolments in third-level engineering, manufacturing and construction courses. In jobs that require STEM skills, less than a quarter are women.

Why is this? The answer is complex and the solutions challenge many deep-seated beliefs and conventions. In many cases, gender gaps can be traced back to subtle and often not-so-subtle influences in childhood and schooling.

There is a societal expectation that certain jobs are 'male' while others are 'female'. Jobs that involve building, making and physical labour tend to be the realm of men. Women, conversely, are often encouraged to take up jobs that involve care, nurturing and people skills, like education and healthcare.

Schools often perpetuate it - an all-girls school might not offer technical drawing or engineering because of a presumed lack of demand, for example. This career predestination has to be challenged if young girls are to get an equal shot at working in a technical field.

Changes can be made in the classroom too. For a start, Leaving Cert science and engineering students need to learn about the great female engineers, scientists and mathematicians of history, like Irish woman Lilian Bland, Stephanie Kwolek and Marie Curie. Despite their achievements, they are often forgotten or even unknown.

Many technical fields are dominated by men at third level and in the workplace. For young women, this can seem isolating, even intimidating.

Having real-world reference points will help young women understand that they won't be going it alone.

There are already many excellent programmes and initiatives doing stellar work in this area.

TeenTurn is a brilliant example of an internship programme looking to develop relationships between female students from disadvantaged backgrounds and businesses, all with a long-term aim of encouraging more females into tech careers.

Last year, DIT launched its ESTeEM programme that pairs off female third-level engineering students with female industry mentors. These and other outreach programmes should remain a long-term priority for industry, educators and the Government looking to increase female participation in STEM.

While encouraging females into STEM subjects is one obvious challenge, attracting and keeping female engineering graduates poses the next challenge. As it stands, too many are lost to careers in business consulting and finance.

In other industries, their problem-solving skills are highly desirable, but their technical skills go unutilised.

Employers need to do more to demonstrate their commitment to attracting female talent into the industry. While many large employers in the sector point to in-house diversity and inclusion programmes, the Hays Gender Diversity Report suggests 20pc of females were unaware if their organisation had such programmes in place.

Senior management should ultimately take responsibility for driving a workplace culture that embraces true diversity.

Developing a culture of greater diversity also goes hand in hand with a greater availability of flexible working options. Encouragingly, we noticed a significant increase in the number of female engineers we have placed in roles in the past 12 months.

Furthermore, study after study has shown that diversity is good for business. Different points of view, values and upbringings give companies more ways to approach problems and hash out solutions.

Ireland's economy is back on track, but without a constant supply of skilled talent, we risk losing our momentum - let's make sure we're giving women ways to help keep it going.

Maureen Lynch is a director at Hays Ireland.

Irish Independent

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