How do we attract more young people into structural engineering?

Posted by Derek Mason

22nd June 2021

When you ask a small child what they want to be when they grow up, it’s unlikely you’ll hear the answer, “I’m going to be a structural engineer”. Despite the popularity of Lego!

But the truth is, if we want the construction industry to thrive, we need to hear more children, teenagers and adults saying those words.

Out of the 465,000 engineers working in the UK, 19.5% of them will be retired by 2026 (figures from 2019). That’s going to leave a significant skills gap across the engineering workforce.

But looking specifically at structural engineering, how do we inspire the next generation and bring a more modern angle to this discipline, and to the construction industry as a whole?

First of all, it starts with making it clear what structural engineering is. Do young people know that the role exists, and when they do, do they know what’s involved? And do they know how exciting and fulfilling the work can be?

We need to communicate that a structural engineer’s role is to make bridges and buildings and other structures stand up. To explain that structures are pushed and pulled all the time by forces like gravity and the wind – and that as an engineer we work with materials and forces to make sure that the skeleton holding up a structure is strong enough to resist those forces.

Young people also need to see themselves represented when they see engineers and others in the wider construction industry. At the moment, many of the images of engineering don’t resonate with the Instagram and Snapchat generation – the visual imagery used can be a little tired – and doesn’t always get across that there is innovation, invention and problem solving at the heart of this work.

That needs to change.

As Super Structures Associates grows, it’s important to me that I create opportunities for the next generation both within the UK and outside it. As I’ve spoken about before, the attitude of my team is very important to me. Engineers need to have the right qualifications, but skills can develop through training, whereas someone’s attitude can be hard to influence.

One of my team, Aneta, came over to London from Poland in the middle of the pandemic in 2020. To me, this demonstrated bravery and dedication – important qualities in both human beings and in engineers. While some employers might not want to give someone inexperienced a chance, I’m the opposite. I like to employ people with raw talent and a good attitude, who are enthusiastic about learning our processes and way of doing things.

With training and supervision, we’re able to get our engineers producing work within one to two months, which is good for them as it makes them feel valued. And of course we are closely watching and checking their work. Other firms might spend 6 months getting a new engineer producing useful work, but we have processes in place to speed things up.

We give our engineers practice work initially – not on current projects – and then hand over real work once they have demonstrated that they are capable and watch closely as they work through step by step and learn the procedures and processes we follow. Our motto during this time is, “The only silly question is the one you don’t ask”.

Our team is a mix of male, female, Romanian, Polish, South African and English – and it’s good to have this diversity as everyone brings different skills and experience to the table. It would be great to see this reflected more throughout the industry.

One way to attract more engineers to the profession is to pique children’s interest early. More building in primary schools – with Lego and Meccano – will help. Plus adding in a competitive element such as bridge-building competitions is a good idea. And we need to say to girls early on in life, “You can have a career in engineering”. This is what my daughter, Christa, learnt from an early age as she saw what I was doing and some of the very interesting and challenging projects that I worked on. This in turn inspired her to become a structural engineer and set her on her own career in structural engineering. Similarly, my son, Kent, also decided on a career in engineering, and he will qualify as a Mechanical engineer when he graduates from university this year. This shows that nurturing children’s interest and providing the relevant information can help them decide to follow a career in engineering.

The world of structural engineering is exciting and full of innovation and opportunity – and we urgently need to get that across to the next generation to avoid a serious skills shortage.

In the meantime, if you need assistance with the structural elements of an upcoming project, please do get in touch.

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