One of Britain's leading engineering figures says encouraging more women to enter the profession will be the key to overcoming an increasingly acute skills crisis.
In an opinion piece written for the UK’s Daily Telegraph, Sir James Dyson, one of Britain’s most renowned engineers and founder of the Dyson appliance company, said curing the persistent gender disparity in the engineering profession could be the key to overcoming a worsening skills crisis.
Dyson noted that Britain currently suffers from an increasingly acute shortage of engineers, one which could seriously impede its ability to compete on an international playing field – particularly in sophisticated, hi-tech industries.
He spoke from personal experience – his company launched an ambitious recruitment drive on its home turf last year, which fell short due to a lack of local talent. The company struggled to source 300 new engineers for its British headquarters in Malmsebury, while managing to recruit 350 for its plants in Singapore and Malaysia with comparative ease.
Key industry bodies vindicate Dyson’s concerns. Engineering the Future – one of Britain’s largest and most influential industry bodies with more than 450,000 members, said in its Insight into Modern Manufacturing report that the UK is on the verge of an acute shortage of skilled engineers as a result of both the scheduled retirement of senior members of the workforce and a lack of fresh graduates to compensate for their departure.
The UK government estimates that in order to satisfy industry demand, the country’s universities must achieve the parlous task of doubling the number of engineering graduates they produce over the next two decades.
According to Dyson, the best and most convenient solution to the skills gap lies in encouraging more women to join the engineering profession.
“It’s surely obvious that we must do more to attract women into engineering,” he said.
Dyson does not just consider increasing the participation rate of women in the engineering profession to be an expedient for a difficult situation – the technology veteran views them as being critical to the success of modern research and development endeavours.
“When male and female designers work together, the result is usually a superior product,” said Dyson. “Female insights are critical to the design process – all sorts of unintended consequences emerge if it is left just to men.”
He cited the oversights of the all-male engineering team responsible for designing the humble airbag, who failed to take into account the variable dimensions of vehicle occupants depending on gender or age, which resulted in an early product which would strike many passengers in the chin.
Dyson was also scathingly critical of claims by University of Glasgow psychologist Dr Gijsbert Stoet that women felt an innate disinterest toward science and engineering.
“Just as I know plenty of men who can multi-task, I employ scores of female engineers who can invent,” he said. “Dr Stoet’s declaration is sexist and reinforces the gender stereotype. Women are not wired to disliked engineering.”
In order to remedy the engineering gender gap, Dyson recommends education measures deployed during the more formative stages of childhood.
“To encourage girls to get inventing, we need to do more to reveal a true picture of engineering at a young age,” he said. “Between the ages of seven and nine, children develop the key critical reasoning skills essential to engineering. It is during this time that they should be inspired and exposed to hands on making and doing…less Barbie, more building.”
Dyson is doing more than just advocating well-intentioned measures from a public pulpit. The James Dyson Foundation is currently working with the UK’s Department for Education on a new STEM curriculum, as well as trialling an education project with five schools in Bath, which provides students with a suite of hi-tech equipment to foster their nascent engineering brains.
The Bath project gives students the opportunity to sketch out their own engineering ideas before using a computer and 3D printer to produce functioning prototypes which can be tested and subsequently amended. According to Dyson, the project has thus far resulted in a 200 per cent increase in the uptake of design and technology in the five schools where it’s been trialled.