Professional roles in engineering are more socio-economically diverse than those in most other sectors, including journalism and law, according to a new report released by the Bridge Group and the Sutton Trust.
According to the report, just over one in five (21 per cent) professionals in engineering are from a low socio-economic background, which is higher than doctors (six per cent), journalists (12 per cent) and professionals in law (13 per cent) – although still lower than the workforce as a whole (29 per cent). The report suggests that one potential reason for this is that engineering jobs show a much larger geographical spread than those in other professions and aren’t just centred on London and the Southeast.
The technical nature of many roles in the engineering industry could also have an impact on socio-economic diversity, the report suggests, because talent can typically be more objectively assessed and softer indicators, such as ‘polish, ‘confidence’ and ‘gravitas’, may be seen as less important.
However, the report highlights the fact that access to subjects such as design and technology, triple science and physics may also be acting as a barrier to those from lower socio-economic backgrounds who wish to study engineering at university. According to the report, between 2010 and 2017, the number of pupils opting to study design and technology fell by 42 per cent. This led to a ‘perceived decline in standards in the subject, which, in turn, has led to a drop in its perceived value as a qualification for further study and employment’, making it a lower priority for funding, with the decline of design and technology ‘more acute’ in poorer areas.
Although the report found that pay gaps by socio-economic background are smaller in engineering than they are in most other sectors, it highlighted evidence that those from higher socio-economic backgrounds are still much more likely to progress to senior roles. In engineering, almost three quarters (71 per cent) of people in their 30s from higher socio-economic backgrounds are in managerial or professional roles, compared to 39 per cent from lower socio-economic backgrounds. The report also stated that a two-tier system that closely aligns with socio-economic divisions has developed due to a split between students taking ‘vocational’ and ‘academic’ routes into engineering.
The report made several recommendations to support access to, and progression within, engineering. It said that employers in the sector should collect and analyse data on socioeconomic background as well as gender and ethnicity, so that firms can better understand their workforce and respond to imbalances. It also suggested that regulators and sector bodies work across the sector to establish a consortium of engineering firms that worked on advancing socio-economic diversity and inclusion, as well diversity in other areas, such as gender and ethnicity. And finally, it stated that engineering firms should introduce clear pathways to support progression for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds and look at ways to widen work experience opportunities and insight days in engineering for young people, especially for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
‘Engineering offers fantastic career prospects, so it is great to see that the sector is performing better than most when it comes to socio-economic diversity,’ said James Turner, chief executive of the Sutton Trust. ‘Opportunities in engineering are spread throughout the country, giving good employment prospects to young people from different regions and making an important contribution to levelling up.
‘However, today’s report also highlights that there is more work to be done, particularly in supporting progression to senior roles,’ he continued. ‘It is vital that the engineering sector continues its diversity and inclusion work to make sure it is accessing the very best talent from all sections of society. We hope that our recommendations provide some useful insights into how to achieve this, and some valuable lessons for other professions too.’
‘There is much for the professions to learn from engineering, but also actions that are needed within this sector to enable more equal progression – especially to more senior roles,’ said Nik Miller, chief executive of the Bridge Group. ‘While engineering compares favourably against most other professional sectors in relation to socio-economic diversity and inclusion, there are still inequalities in access, progression and pay – and important relationships between this characteristic and others, including gender and ethnicity. Bringing together the range of research in this area, we hope that this report will inspire action at a time when the imperative for social equality is clear – and the role of our engineering sector more vital than ever.’