July 2017


Women can help fill the engineering skills gap

Karen Evans, a civil engineer specialising in transport and highways engineering, has worked in the construction industry for 25 years. She is a technical director at WSP and Regional Chair of the National Association of Women in Construction in the West Midlands.

At the start of Karen's career, women were sparsely represented in construction and engineering. Two decades on, not much has changed. And, Karen argues, things have got to change if the alarming skills gap facing companies today is to be addressed.

On my course at college when I was studying civil engineering 20 years ago, I had very few other women for company. That is a situation I have grown accustomed to in the construction industry ever since.

I have worked on many major projects and attended meetings with more than 20 people in the room, including two or three clients and all the engineering team, architect and planners - and besides myself there has been maybe only one other woman in the group. That still happens regularly and I find it really puzzling.

I don't think there are any more females going into engineering now than when I started. And at a time when we are facing a major skills gap in the industry, that is a situation we urgently need to change.

I really love my job. I love it that no two days are the same and never have been in all the time I have worked in engineering, through from being a year-out student graduate to my role now as a technical director.

What really drives me is having great clients and helping with great projects, whether it's a ten-house development with a minor access road or an enormous building for someone like Jaguar Land Rover, housing 5,000 people with all the infrastructure that goes with that.

I worked on the Longbridge Island project, near Warwick, and the M40 J12, and have done a lot of work with developers at Heathcote in Leamington Spa and at Gaydon and on many other schemes with Warwickshire County Council and Warwick District Council. It's great to develop projects all the way through from the first sketch on a piece of paper to seeing the buildings and infrastructure coming out of the ground - and there is absolutely no reason why women can't do it!

A lot of the time you are sitting in a design office, working on problems and coming up with answers. It's not that different from being an accountant in terms of making numbers add up.

There is no question that we have a significant skills shortage. A lot of engineering companies already collaborate because we haven't got enough skilled people to do the work. Generally we need to encourage more people into engineering - so the failure to attract women into the industry is more damaging than ever.

We need to be getting more girls thinking about doing science and engineering and grabbing the interest of young women while they are still making their career choices at school. They don't have to do just those subjects - I also did French and History - but give it a go. We need to capture their imagination at schools even when they are eight, nine, ten years old. I think schools and colleges can do a lot more to encourage them in that direction - or at least make it clear that it is a valid option.

I also don't think engineering is promoted well as a career. A lot of the imagery that you see is very stereotypical and completely wrong. Some of the campaigns are very clichéd and emphasise the wrong things. Some of these make us cringe.

As women, we don't need a pat on the head and to be patronised. Certainly the higher up you get the fewer of us there are, but we are not actually making a fuss - we just wish there was a few more of us!


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