Closing the generational gap and transferring skills from retiring to graduating engineers is one of many personnel issues facing the hydropower and dams industry. However other worrying workplace trends are making this more of a complex task. Why is it that with impending shortages of young engineers being forecast, it becomes evident that the majority of qualified women do not actually continue to work in the engineering industry? With engineering and technology set to play strategic roles in economic recovery worldwide, Suzanne Pritchard explains why this must be resolved.
Economic growth relies heavily on innovation and knowledge, both of which are vital components in the field of science and technology. However, economic growth can only be achieved if the best use is made of such skilled engineers. If these workers are supported with the appropriate framework they will boost productivity, supporting the flow of knowledge into the creation of wealth.
Worrying workplace trends are affecting a number of countries around the globe, causing what has been described as ‘a serious loss to the economy’. In stark contrast to men, the majority of women qualified in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects do not continue to work in these fields. At a time of economic instability this issue is becoming a cause for increasing concern.
One such concerned country is Scotland – as demonstrated in a recent report called Tapping all our talents. Women in STEM: a strategy for Scotland. "Scotland fails to realise the full potential of its research base," the report states, "and it will continue to do so if it systematically fails to cope with the debilitating loss of talent represented by the high attrition of highly trained women from employment."
Published by the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) in April 2012, the report adds that although universities now graduate a large number of women in STEM, 73% of Scottish female graduates are lost from STEM compared with 48% of men. Expensively trained women are lost in larger proportions than men at every step of the post-graduate ladder, and are under-represented in top positions across the spectrum of business, public service and academia.
"This report clearly demonstrates that Scotland, like many other countries, currently does not take full advantage of the ability of many talented females," says Deputy First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon. "In many cases the career opportunities of women are restricted."
The under-representation of women in STEM is of particular economic concern. It has been estimated that increasing the participation of women in the UK labour market alone could be worth between £15-23B (US$23.8-36.5B), or 1.3-2.0% GDP, with STEM accounting for at least £2B (US$ 3.1B) of this.
Such a major, quantifiable loss to the economy is one that many countries can ill afford at the current time. "The rate of loss of highly trained women from the workforce is taking place at a time when, even though the country is in near recession conditions, many of Scotland’s employers in the science and technology sectors are unable to find sufficient qualified, skilled and experienced workers," the Royal Society of Edinburgh says in its report.
Carole Rosenlund, project manager at the International Centre for Hydropower (ICH) in Norway, agrees that we need to increase the proportion of qualified women into the STEM workforce. "Women are not equally represented in the hydropower industry and are a clear minority, both in decision making and especially in the technical areas," she says. "This low representation in the sector dates far back and cannot be transformed overnight. It is however encouraging that the number of women in engineering, and especially in the hydropower sector, is slowly on the increase but definitely nowhere near where we’d all like it to be."
Rosenlund agrees with the Royal Society of Edinburgh that more women are university trained in this area but admits there are still problems.
"At ICH we are happy to see that the number of women attending our programmes is on the increase, but again not where we’d like it to be. We have more qualified female applicants accepted to attend our programmes but," she adds, "a significant percentage of these are denied permission to attend courses either by their spouses or leaders. In the latter case, a male colleague is usually considered for the opportunity instead. Recently, a female participant on one of our courses in Norway said something remarkable that still resonates with me. To come here for this training programme has been a fight all the way, we women are used to it, she said but sometimes you get tired of fighting."
"It is very testing to deal with these types of incidents," Rosenlund admits, "but we are actively working with partners in the regions to encourage the active inclusion and participation of women in the sector’s capacity building programmes."
Encouraging female participation in STEM does not appear to just be a European problem. The US is facing a similar situation. A 2011 report on women in STEM by the US Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration cited that ‘although women hold half of all jobs in the US economy, they hold less than 25% of STEM jobs’. Furthermore US women are also described as holding a disproportionately low share of STEM undergraduate degrees, particularly in engineering.
Although the Bureau of Labour Statistics projects that STEM jobs will continue to grow faster than other occupations (17% between 2008-18 compared with just 9.85% in non-STEM fields), women are still under-represented. Only one in seven engineers is female and women have not seen employment growth in STEM-related jobs since 2000. There is a great need to encourage and support women in STEM, the US Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration believes.
Lack of role models
So what is the cause of the problem? As the Scottish report states there are several factors. Some are practical hurdles of family and responsibility but many are cultural factors that relate to attitudes in the work place, and the organisation of science and technology with concomitant difficulties in assessing career resources. Inevitably, RSE says, with such low female representation at senior levels, a lack of role models plays its part in the problem.
There have been many schemes which have attempted to stem the loss of talent but as these are often ad hoc, partial and short term they have failed to make an impact. The RSE report recommends that the Scottish Government should:
- Take the lead in committing itself to a national strategy for Scotland aimed at retaining and promoting women in STEM.
- Reaffirm its commitment to close the gender pay gap.
- Expect university STEM departments to achieve the minimum standards for an Athena SWAN Silver award (a charter for women aimed at advancing their representation in STEM).
The report also recommends that:
- The UK Government should extend existing parental leave legislation to recognise the equal responsibility of mothers and fathers for parenting.
- Businesses and industry should address the issue of job design and introduce quality part-time employment at all levels for men and women and that national STEM Industry Advisory Boards should develop gender equity strategies.
- Funders of universities and of research should link funding to gender equality and seek to encourage a level of performance equivalent to an Athena SWAN Silver award across all Scottish university STEM departments.
- Academies and learned professional bodies should set standards that help to change the culture; lead by example – ensuring that appropriate data is being collected, analysed and reported regularly, and that trends are examined.
"There really isn’t a quick-fix to this imbalance, but there are steps that need to be implemented to change the statics and increase the presence of women in the sector," says Carole Rosenlund. "The key here is to promote engineering awareness and education. This could start at home with supportive parents; through to elementary and middle schools encouraging girls to be engineers. Universities and colleges have previously held engineering days aimed at girls and this must continue with the support of the industry and authorities alike. An innovative perspective to this approach is probably necessary."
The Galveston District of the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) believes that gaps in STEM education begin before students attend college and continue to increase as they graduate and pursue higher education. The district believes that there is a need to spark students’ interest in STEM subjects, help counter stereotypes and increase participation of under-represented groups in STEM courses.
Attracting women to the industry is one thing, Rosenlund admits but it’s a whole other ball game to retain them in their capacity as engineers and significant players in the sector. "Being a minority in the sector women are very exposed and isolated at the same time," she explains. "The support mechanisms thus must be robust and implemented in a way that women in the industry are given unconditional support and consideration on the same merits as their male colleagues."
The Halcrow Group is supporting the Scottish government-backed drive to attract and retain women in the STEM sector. The company says it has already tackled many of the issues and supports employees with flexible working arrangements which can include condensed hours, part time working, a tax efficient way of funding childcare, and flexi time allowing a work/life balance to be supported.
"Many women are being lost to the sector who should be progressing their careers and this is contributing to under-representation in leadership positions," Halcrow’s Associate Director Shona Tait comments.
Showcasing female engineers is a conscious effort being implemented by ICH. "We are actively using female experts as facilitators on our yearly course programmes and we view this as one key aspect in promoting the inclusion and participation of women in the sector. This is a valuable experience to both the facilitator and course participants," Rosenlund says.
The Galveston District of USACE is also very active in this regard. It organises a Corps in the Classroom programme where USACE employees build relationships with local schools to encourage an interest in STEM courses and the pursuit of engineering and science fields.
"I believe the interaction with minority female engineers encourages students to think outside the box of traditional career fields women were once known to work in," says engineer Franchelle Craft. "It allows them to see a person who looks like them succeed in a field that was once dominated by males and gives them the confidence to know they too can succeed.
"I began my career with the Corps’ Galveston District as a department of the army intern and progressed as a project engineer," Craft explains. "I am encouraged when I see the excitement of minority females considering me as a role model and want them to realise that I am tangible proof that engineering careers are accessible to all."
Craft is part of 10% of Galvestone district employees who volunteer in more than 30 STEM-related events throughout the year. Perhaps the proof is in the pudding. The district boasts a 52% population of women and minority groups employed in STEM-related positions.
The under-representation of women is not the only concern facing STEM related professions at the current time. There is a universal problem. As Sir John Arbuthnott, president of The Royal Society of Edinburgh, points out: "Employers in key sectors are reporting large impending shortages of people with STEM qualifications."
In September 2012 the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering published a report entitled Jobs and growth: Importance of engineering skills to the UK economy. Its conclusion reaffirms Arbuthnott’s statement: ‘there is good econometric evidence that the demand for graduate engineers exceeds supply, and the demand is pervasive across all sectors of the economy.’
Demand for people in non-graduate science, engineering and technology occupations also exceeds supply, the academy says. Furthermore, independent models of future skills demand are predicting shortages of STEM qualified people for all occupational levels. Much of this is due to replacement demand and people leaving the labour market. The report warns that the demand for STEM skills will continue to exceed supply in the foreseeable future.
The Institute of Civil Engineers also acknowledges that significant numbers of water engineers in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are leaving the supply chain due to deep troughs of workload during regulatory transitions. These engineers are a valuable resource to the UK, the institute says, and more should be done to promote their skills.
Such labour shortages in the STEM sector are not geographically restricted. In June 2012 a report from the Australian Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations stated that there is a shortage of engineering specialists in the state of Tasmania. Those with commissioning experience in dam construction, water supply schemes, hydraulics, marine services and civil engineers were cited as being very difficult to recruit.
In the lead up to the 2012 report only 40% of vacancies for civil, structural and transport engineers were filled. This compares to 67% in February 2011. A significant number of employers stated that there were not enough qualified engineers in Tasmania who were sufficiently skilled or experienced to fill the vacancies. The majority of applicants for the jobs held formal qualifications but more than 50% were considered unsuitable as they lacked expertise/and or experience for the positions.
Engineering in Tasmania is perhaps considered less favourably when compared with mainland Australia. The profession does not have a high enough profile, resulting in a lack of people undertaking relevant engineering courses. Commissioning engineers are also difficult to recruit here as they are generally workers of a senior level, with years of experience in their field, and are in demand internationally. A loss of qualified people has also been reported to higher paying industries such as mining.
A similar situation of labour shortage is being experienced by the electrical engineering sector in Tasmania. Hydroelectric engineering is one of the main industries for such personnel in the state. Since 2006 a greater push for more renewable power and national infrastructure projects such as the Basslink has contributed to a larger demand for electrical engineers.
Back in Norway, Carole Rosenlund expands on why there is such a shortage of engineers. "The generational gap in knowledge and skills transfer is an unresolved discussion here in Norway as it is on the continent and the rest of the world," she says. "The challenge is of course how to replace the retiring workforce with new, young and inexperienced engineers that are in short supply.
"Most of the newly educated engineers here in Norway are choosing to venture into the oil sector because of the money. Being unable to match these high pay packages offered by the off-shore oil industry means that the hydropower sector is left deficient of new engineers. This vacuum is unavoidable but the industry must begin to address this with innovative solutions."
Such innovative solutions embraced by the US Army Corps of Engineers have gone back to the classroom. The Galveston division has its Corps in the Classroom programme and other districts such as San Francisco are also determined to make STEM-education a priority; employees have been working with local school children on a robotics project at Coyote dam.
Engineering education was also given another boost back across the Atlantic in November 2012. The Royal Academy of Engineering in England has been tasked with supporting the reworking of an engineering diploma for 14-19 year-olds, to ensure a definitive link between vocational education and the labour market. Described as being excellent news for growth, the diploma is expected to be ready for 2016.
Dick Olver, Chairman of BAE Systems and Chair of Education for Engineering says: "We need 1.3M people in science and engineering jobs by 2020 to maintain the economy. To meet this demand we need many more young people to take up engineering in schools, colleges and university to ensure the UK economy grows through engineering innovation and excellence."
ICH is keen to promote industry and education partnerships and is working very closely with the local technical university in Trondheim. PHD students have conducted lectures on specific topic areas, as well as assisting with technical courses on turbines and ancillary equipment. Rosenlund speaks about obligating the industry to become more involved and taking an active role by working closely with learning institutions to improve sector competencies.
"This collaboration should not be overlooked as it would remedy many issues," she says. "Training and academic programmes are an approach that many hydropower organisations are starting to cultivate, but still the years of experience that the ageing workforce holds does not compare with this. It takes years to be at the ageing workforce’s professional level and the fresh engineers must be allowed time and nurtured into their new roles by the soon to retire experts," Rosenlund comments. "Mentoring programmes should be in place to facilitate for succession planning, knowledge and skills transfer. Norplan is one such organisation that is actively implementing these mentoring programmes."
This is where the value of institutions such as ICH come into their own by offering short term training to enable participants and young engineers to build on their skills and knowledge. Though formal education is a fundamental requirement to becoming an engineer, experience also weighs in highly and is a predominant factor in that most organisations are focused on recruiting candidates with practical experience.
"One might argue that without knowledge it’s not possible to have experience or experience is a precursor to knowledge," Rosenlund remarks. "This takes us back to earlier statements, where industry must work closely with learning institutions and promote industrial involvement, establish mentor programmes and internships for graduates. What is clear however is that knowledge and experience are factors that are complementary and neither can be preferred over the other. There has to be a rational equilibrium that can facilitate entry into the sector for eager but inexperienced graduates."
ICH says it has recently reviewed course admission requirements and lowered the years of experience required to qualify for programmes. It says that more and more organisations in the industry are willing to send their young employees on courses, and such concessions on its part are a great support to the sector. And it is support that is required.
"The growth in STEM is going to be all about mentoring," USACE Commanding General Lt Gen Thomas Bostick says. "And all of us are mentors in separate ways."
Classroom to boardroom
Engineering excellence and innovation is seen by many as the path back to economic recovery. To keep on the edge of innovation, performance gaps in education and the professional workforce must be closed. Strength in science, engineering, technology and mathematics relies on fulfilling the professional development of STEM qualified women, and retaining them in the profession; along with promoting STEM education and inspiring school children and undergraduates to fulfil the growing number of professional vacancies.
At the end of the day, to have a smart economy, you need strength in STEM areas – all the way from the classroom right up to the boardroom.
Apprentice and graduate programmes
A recent UK report has assessed the quality of apprenticeships in the UK, calling for more high level skills and saying that by 2015 the government should adopt a benchmark of raising the number of higher level STEM apprenticeships by 25%. The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee says that apprenticeships are a viable and attractive route to a career and should be seen as equal to the university route.
Many companies in the water power and dams industry offer apprenticeships. Since 2007 over 500 apprenticeships have successfully graduated through Scottish and Southern Energy’s (SSE’s) programme and play a vital role in all aspects of the company’s day to day operations. Over 100 apprentices were sought for the 2012 scheme. Head of SSE’s apprentice programme Gary Hamilton said: ‘We know how important our people are – they’re our greatest asset. This is particularly important to our apprentices as we invest a lot in their development and progression through the company. Many of our senior staff began their careers as apprentices.’
As well as running its apprentice programme Yorkshire Water in the UK has a two-year graduate programme. ‘While tough economic times have seen many companies downsizing or scrap their graduate programme altogether, we’re continuing to develop and grow our graduate programme,’ says graduate scheme co-ordinator Amin Daji.
Yorkshire Water says this forms part of its ongoing drive to introduce fresh new talent into the business and ensure its skills base is maintained and developed. With places on graduate schemes at a premium throughout the UK, and recent statistics showing graduate employment is still suffering as a result of the challenging economic environment, the company was expecting to receive a large number of applicants for its recent programme.
Hydro Tasmania is also helping to develop engineering in the Australian state by sponsoring four University of Tasmania undergraduates. Scholarships are available to third year students studying engineering and financial support is provided for the last two years of the student’s degree. The company also has an in-house apprenticeship programme to help develop skills in the technical areas it needs.