Page last updated at 00:29 GMT, Friday, 13 March 2009

Putting brakes on engineering shortage

By Sarah Campbell
BBC education correspondent

Formula 1 team school visit
The trip aimed to show the girls that engineering can be fun

The thinking behind this particular school trip was about shattering stereotypes.

If you are trying to show that engineering is not all about grease, blokes and cars, there are few better places to visit than the design centre of a Formula One team.

The Williams team headquarters in rural Oxfordshire is about as far from the typical image of a garage as one could get.

The first smell is one of disinfectant and the overall impression is that the build area is as clean as most hospitals.

Radios are turned down low, the staff work quietly and efficiently and not one mug of tea clutters the pristine work areas.

Fifteen girls from Bentley Wood High School, in Stanmore, north-west London, were invited along to see what being an engineer can involve.

There is a national shortage of engineers and scientists in the UK and women make up a very small number of those employed.

More girls than boys achieve the top grades in subjects including maths, science and technology in school, but few appear to want to utilise those skills.

Last year five times more men than women achieved a degree in engineering and women make up just 18.7 per cent of the overall SET (science, engineering and technology) workforce.

But why?


At Williams, there are 300 engineers and technicians but just eight positions are held by women.

The schoolgirls had the chance to look behind the scenes of this multi-million pound sport and speak to some of the people involved.

Kirsty Allan joined the company a year-and-a-half ago after completing a postgraduate degree at Cranfield University.

She is now working as a composites engineer helping to construct and test Williams' cars.

"I think that women have got a distorted view of engineering," she said.

"When someone says engineering to a 15-year-old girl, they immediately think grease, under a car - what you would call a mechanic - and that's not what it is at all.

F1 school trip
Kirsty Allan enjoys her job at the F1 headquarters
"Being an engineer is basically being an inventor."

The National Skills Forum think tank questioned its members, who include business leaders and policymakers, on how more technically minded women could be encouraged to choose careers in areas like science and engineering.

Their subsequent report calls for a much improved schools careers service, with a full-time careers officer for every school.

Katherine Chapman, from the National Skills Forum, said: "We know that the UK is missing out on billions of pounds through the skills shortages in science and engineering, and there are still so few women and girls going into these sectors.

"In the report it was felt that careers advice is so important because this is all about challenging people's perceptions."


Fifteen-year-old Shriyam, from Bentley Wood, is currently deciding whether to be a doctor, lawyer or TV presenter.

She believes there should be a change of emphasis in careers advice.

"In modern day, all the girls are encouraged to go into beauty or hair and I think we do need to be encouraged to go into science," she said.

And fellow pupil Hajin agreed that engineering was seen as a man's job and that would put her off.

As she watched the carbon fibre body of a car being constructed, she said: "Show them places like this and tell them it's not all about men and grease."

That is certainly true of the hydraulics area.

It looks more like a laboratory, with extraordinarily complex-looking steering and brake systems in testing.

There are now just over two weeks to go until the first race of the Formula One season in Melbourne, Australia.

The cars have to be ready for their flights this weekend so in the final few days the engineers have to get it right.

It's a job Kirsty Allan clearly loves. "It's a fantastic area to work in and I would recommend it to anyone who wants a challenge in their life."

All of the schoolgirls who made the visit are studying physics, chemistry and biology at school and all except one said they did want to follow a career involving science.

Statistics suggest some will change their mind.

But the National Skills Forum says girls sticking with the subjects are exactly what is needed help reduce the skills shortage and help the UK's economic recovery.

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