Fewer and fewer young people are taking up science and engineering as a career.

This is a topic that has reared its head numerous times over the last few years, and is a particular issue in the UK. It’s no secret among any industry especially the power industry which I work in, that the workforce is ageing with little to no new blood coming in to replace those retiring or otherwise leaving. Now, I know I’m hardly the best person to address this, being an engineering graduate who no longer engineers, is desperately trying to become a professional writer and artist, and who has absolutely no standing professionally whatsoever. But! Don’t mistake my desire for a more artistic career as dislike for my existing career. If anything, I’m bloody grateful for having been trained and am working in a highly technical field, as I feel it’s prepared me well for writing by giving me an expanded view of the world. And I’m incredibly keen to see young people head towards it as a career!

Let’s examine the root causes of the problem by working backwards. Why don’t we have enough grads entering businesses? Two main reasons: Extended downturn in the economy throttling funding (business problem), and a reduced number of people from the UK studying technical subject. Why are fewer people studying technical subjects? Less kids are aiming for technical career paths, and thus aren’t taking the subjects necessary to become engineers, scientists and the like. Why are less kids aiming for technical career paths?

Heck knows. The most commonly quoted cause is a ‘lack of interest in technology as a career’. Now, I’m speaking from my own experiences, and I’ve been out of the school education for a good eight years now (Christ, I’m supposed to be a grown-up by now), but I’m not 100% sure that’s the case. I think that science and engineering have ALWAYS had a kind of stigma attached to them; Being good at this sort of career demands excellent analytical, mathematical and learning skills. None of these makes you particularly popular in the playground (unless you’re in Hong Kong, in which case it’ll make you a goddamn rockstar if all the tutor advertising I’ve seen has told me anything). I fear that trying to get more young people interested in science and technology will fail; surely it would be better to focus on those kids who ALREADY display that curiosity and adaptability?

Then again, maybe I’m wrong. Looking around the general population at work, there is a MARKED difference in the personalities of the older vs. the younger engineers. At the elder end of the spectrum you tend to have the, for lack of a better terminology, more ‘manly’ types. Those for whom engineering was a MANLY profession, and are very ALPHA about EVERYGODDAMNTHING. And then at my end of the scale, there are the somewhat weedier, nerdier techie types, more adept with computers than the chunkier bits of kit. Maybe science and engineering HAS undergone a sea change in perception in the last 25 years or so.

I personally think a lot of it has to do with the perception of science and engineering subjects in the public eye as a whole. Scientists are seen as hiding in labs and being obsessed with narrow fields of interest to the detriment of the rest of their lives, while engineers are the people wot fix your telly when it’s broke. Both of which showing a certain lack of respect for the fields. And, to be fair, neither the media nor scientists/engineers/technologists ourselves do all that much to dispel those images: The insistence of the shallower newspapers that scientists be referred to as ‘boffins’, typical comedy depictions of nerdy, nerdy scientists and engineers, and the fact that we do identify with said stereotypes to an extent… It’s easy to see why science and engineering are not seen in the same professional light as lawyers, or doctors. Cases in point: Suits, House… Big Bang Theory. It’s not looking good for us!

It’s definitely not the only problem; Lack of investment, the lure of other career paths, even societal, cultural and familial expectations all have a part to play in this. But I think we can definitely do so much more in the industry and education sectors to help ourselves. Yes, we should engender a fierce curiosity and a fascination with science and technology at a young age. Yes, we should reach out and encourage the development of these into genuine skills throughout high school. We should DEFINITELY retain strong links to universities, providing support, funding wherever possible. In the workplace, we should work harder to ensure that graduates are given the opportunities to work in jobs that they genuinely enjoy and are capable of doing, with respects to the business’ needs as well of course. The point is, we need to capture imaginations and sustain the excitement in one long chain, rather than our current method of starting and stopping every few years, when we fail to get the results we wanted. For gods’ sakes, we’re scientists (well, engineers as well, but that’s really applied science): We should know by now that short term action will not yield the massive changes we want!

So, if you think your kid’s got an interest in science: encourage it, and keep them asking questions! We’re gonna need them someday.

M.