An invisible industry?

9 November 2009

Engineering has become ‘an invisible industry’ which is undervalued and undermined by outdated stereotypes, according to new research from the UK’s National Grid. Carrieann Stocks takes an in-depth look at the report andinvestigates some recent initiatives to attract young people to a career in the hydro power and dams industry

All those years ago when I was at school, I never would have believed that eventually I would be involved with the hydroelectric industry – in fact I don’t think that hydroelectricity, or engineering as a discipline, was ever mentioned in any significant capacity in those hundreds of lessons I had to endure. Career advisors certainly never highlighted the benefits of working in this varied field, so it came as no surprise to me when I read the results of a report from the UK’s National Grid, which suggests that engineering is not on the radar of young people, and that parents and teachers have negative perceptions of the industry.

The Engineering Our Future report was commissioned to look at the attitudes towards engineering among young people, parents and teachers in the UK. More than 1300 individual interviews with young people aged 14-19, and additional in depth focus groups, were conducted across the country. This revealed disturbingly low levels of awareness and interest, and a picture of confusion about the role of engineering, with the majority of young people and parents regarding it as dirty and menial work.

Highlights of the findings include:

• Confusion about the role of engineers, with six out of 10 young people not able to name a recent engineering achievement.

• Young people, parents and teachers have ‘blue collar’ images of men in overalls who fix things.

• Teachers and parents think engineering is a career for those who are ‘less academic’.

• Prejudice and stereotypes stem from this basic preconception.

• Girls are ten times less likely to say they would pursue a career in engineering.

• Low levels of appreciation for engineers’ contribution to society, compared to other professions such as doctors and teachers.

“This report makes extremely worrying reading,” says Steve Holliday, Chief Executive of National Grid. “National Grid sits at the heart of the challenges of climate change, security of supply and affordability of energy in the UK. We need lots of very clever people who can make things happen and think outside the box to create a different world in the future.

“We know from our own workforce planning that nearly 1000 new roles are needed by 2020. We need to inspire today’s youth and help them to see how exciting and interesting a career in engineering can be.”

With the UK, and indeed the rest of the world, on the cusp of an energy revolution, it is essential that the industry has a pipeline of talent coming through in the long term to help support the transition to a low carbon economy, and to meet government targets for renewable energy generation. As Lord Browne of Madingley, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK, says: “This report highlights the importance of attracting more people to the profession at a time when engineering creativity is most needed to meet the grand challenges facing society… The Academy’s mission is to move engineering closer to the centre of society. Engineering skills are increasingly vital to modern life as they underpin our access to energy, water, food and healthcare. Engineering will also be crucial in solving the growing problems of energy sustainability and climate change.”

Attracting engineers

There is no doubt that attracting students to careers in engineering is a continuing challenge, and companies should look at the factors that motivate young people toward a particular career. A report by the National Society of Professional Engineers Young Engineers Advisory Council ‘Motivation Factors of Young Engineers (2008)’ highlighted a number of motivating factors, namely: career growth/advancement opportunities; self improvement; salaries; desire to prove worth; client satisfaction; interest level in job; and sense of professional obligation.

A paper by the US Association of State Dam Safety Officials presented at the Waterpower XVI conference, held in Spokane, Washington, from 27-30 July, highlighted that many of these factors are present in a dam engineering role.

The paper – Romancing the profession: promoting careers in dam engineering and dam safety by Sarah McCubbin Cana and Bruce A Tschantz – says that attracting young people to the profession of designing, building, maintaining and operating safe dams is essential to ensure the safety of those living downstream and the continuation of economic and life-line benefits provided by many dams. While few new large dam projects are underway in the US, a plethora of career opportunities exist in dam removal, dam modification and rehabilitation, risk assessment, dam failure analysis, emergency action planning and more.

Over the coming years, ASDSO says it will continue to expand its efforts to encourage young people to consider this specialized and exciting niche of engineering, in particular through its Committee on Education Outreach, which was formed in 2004 with the purpose of focusing more attention on the promotion of dam safety engineering as a profession in undergraduate and graduate college-level programs.

Following it’s formation, the committee conducted a survey of employment opportunities which was distributed to over 2000 ASDSO member, 50 related associations, and a number of related journals and newsletter. Separate survey questions were sent to university civil engineering departments. The main results of this survey were:

• Approximately 27% of represented employees have graduate degrees.

• The projected attrition rate for dam engineers is high and ample job opportunities will exist in the future.

• The majority of respondents found it difficult to find qualifies candidates for dam related positions.

The final question on the survey asked how the ASDSO and its Committee on Education Outreach could help meet current and future needs for engineers. From the answers received, two major themes emerged – the need to promote awareness of careers in dam safety and engineering, and the promotion of dam safety courses in universities. Other suggestions included promoting internship opportunities and publicizing job opportunities.

The committee took note of these suggestions, and over the past few years has created several new resources for students: a Speakers Bureau that provides guest speakers for classes and student groups throughout the US; an online clearinghouse for internships, co-op programs and employment opportunities; a student paper competition connected with ASDSO’s annual conference; and on-request resources for project assistance with design classes. The committee was also instrumental in enhancing ASDSO’s existing scholarship program, encouraging ASDSO’s Board of Directors to double the scholarship award to $10,000, provide a free one-year membership to scholarship recipients and sponsor recipients’ attendance at ASDSO’s annual national conference.

It is also targeting younger students through the “Kids’ Pages” on ASDSO’s website, by participating in Engineering Week activities and providing guest speakers in elementary and secondary classrooms on request.

Education programmes

Back in the UK, in light of its report findings, National Grid also reviewed its education and skills programme. A number of solutions are outlined in the report that run along a similar theme as those identified by the ASDSO, including:

• School Power – a new scheme whereby National Grid volunteers will go into primary schools with a programme of activities to stimulate interest in how energy, forces and materials work. The programme will also be available for teachers and others to use online

• Work Experience - together with the Royal Academy of Engineering, National Grid is developing a blue print for what meaningful work experience should look like as well as developing a mentoring and coaching programme aimed at teachers and careers advisors

• New pilot programme in North-West England to help disadvantaged young people.

Elsewhere in the UK, the-british-dam-society (BDS) runs a student zone on its website: It is BDS policy to support student education in relation to dams and reservoir engineering, and it does this in a variety of ways including running competitions, giving presentations at universities, assisting research projects and providing useful information on its website. These are all initiatives targeted at making engineering a more accepted career path.

Future issues

Attracting the younger generation of engineers is a task that everyone involved in the industry needs to tackle. Companies must start to invest in training to create the engineers that are needed in the future. As the older generation of engineers start to retire, there are fewer and fewer new entrants who can gain hands-on experience or training from these experts, eventually replacing them in the field.

The National Grid report asked a particularly important question of its respondents – what do you think would best stimulate young people’s interest in a job or career in engineering? The top five answers were as follows: 1) Work experience in engineering roles; 2) Open days at engineering companies; 3) School/college visits by engineers; 4) Year long scholarships in an engineering role; 5) After-school clubs on engineering. These are all initiatives that the hydro and dams industry could become involved with fairly easily – and it should be considered before the skills shortage in the industry becomes even more of a problem than it already is. As National Grid Chief Executive, Steve Holliday, says: “The energy industry is changing and it’s vital we have the right people to deliver the new technologies required for the future. But to do this, we must inspire and engage tomorrow’s engineers today”.

For further information on the Engineering our Future report from the National Grid, please visit:

Privacy Policy
We have updated our privacy policy. In the latest update it explains what cookies are and how we use them on our site. To learn more about cookies and their benefits, please view our privacy policy. Please be aware that parts of this site will not function correctly if you disable cookies. By continuing to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy unless you have disabled them.