March 2nd signalled the beginning of Engineers’ Week here in Ireland. 13 years after introduction, it is a week-long festival of nationwide events celebrating and promoting Engineering. This week is a component of Engineers Ireland’s STEPS programme, a not-for-profit strategic outreach, aiming to increase interest and awareness in Engineering as a future career for primary and secondary school students. 3D-printing, robot programming and a virtual-reality tour of a wind farm give a flavor of the events that aim to showcase the amazing ways in which Irish engineers are pushing the limits of Engineering theory, creativity and innovation.
As a recent graduate of UCD’s Civil Engineering programme, I wanted to comment on the current state of Engineering in Ireland, whilst looking at where we’ve come from and where we’re going.
Engineers Ireland is one of Ireland’s largest and oldest professional institutions, established in 1835 and with 25,000 current members. We would be foolish to assume that the industry started there though, given the evidence of Irish engineering ability from every age strewn across the land. Go back 5,200 years and you’ll find Newgrange- the world’s oldest astronomical observatory, built 400 years before the pyramids by a band of people who had neither metal tools nor wheels. Closer to the modern age, it is less commonly known that the submarine, hypodermic syringe, stethoscope, rechargeable nickel-zinc batteries, and color photographs were all invented by the Irish people.
When I was in secondary school, I realised that if we stop to look around us, everything we see has been engineered by someone; buildings, phones and cars are perhaps the obvious ones here. Looking for more subtle examples, we might notice the clasp on the window, the gas piston in the swivel chair that you’re sitting on or the ball-bearing at the tip of your pen. Our mastery has come so far that seemingly everyday actions represent complex transitions of energy states from one form to another. Earphones aren’t loud enough? It takes a tenth of a second between tapping the volume key on our laptop (mechanical energy) to sending an electrical current through to the circuit board (electrical energy), reverting that current back through to our earphones (magnetic energy) to increase the volume (sound energy) with huge precision and reliability. The simplicity is underappreciated, but that’s the desired outcome- the best solution is the one you never notice. The role of the engineer is to reduce friction in our lives identifying the problem and resolving it with an effective, safe and aesthetic design.
It was problem-solving that initially attracted me to Engineering in school. I was always analytical and, like most of the people in the field, enjoyed maths and science. I have a love for figuring out how things work- be it engines, structures or electronics. Civil Engineering was a natural choice for me, as I knew I could find work almost anywhere in the world and opt to work either on-site or in an office. However, as I progressed through the course, and after several internships, I continued to realise that the problems I liked to solve were business related rather than Engineering issues. The technical aspect became less appealing- my interest was in discovering a problem or need for consumers and working out how to fulfill it. So, if it took me until secondary school to realise that everything around me was engineered, it took me until the end of college to realise that everything around me was also bought and sold.
Even given my change in interest, my college studies empowered me to easily make the transition from a technical background to a more commercial one. Studying Engineering gives a robust framework to the way your mind approaches problems- the result is a skillset that is more transferrable than that of almost any other degree. So why is it that we need Engineers’ Week to entice primary and secondary school students into Engineering, when the rewards are already obvious?
Engineering is a continuously developing profession. Advancements in technology such as robotics and artificial intelligence, as well as the changing landscape and climate change considerations, means that the industry is evolving at a rate that makes it indistinguishable from that of a decade ago. While this rate of change is exciting for some prospective Engineers, it may seem daunting and too ambiguous a career choice for others. Similarly, given the cyclical nature of Civil Engineering, and its vulnerability to economic conditions, it seems students have a lot of trepidation when it comes to opting for Civil rather than the much more popular Electrical, Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering streams in college. This was certainly my experience. In an initial class of well over 350 students, only around 10 chose the route of Civil after first year. This alarmingly low intake, down from the heady heights of pre-recession class sizes of 50 or more, represents a critical skills shortage in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) sector. The effects of this increased labour costs (salaries for Graduate Engineers are up 21% over the past 5 years). Limits to construction output and productivity are hampering our growth as the economy recovers.
Even if the desire to study Engineering is there, the barriers to get into, and, more importantly, to get out of an Engineering course are high. While CAO points to get into the programmes at UCD, Trinity, UCC or NUIG mean you would have to be in the top 25%, we must also appreciate that the workload once in College is hugely demanding too. Engineering has the highest drop out rates of any program in Ireland.
We travelled to Coolock to visit Coláiste Dhúlaigh, a post-primary school and a college of further education offering a range of courses that provide entry to Universities and Institutes of Technology. We spoke to students from their Preliminary Engineering and Technology courses, where they offered some interesting insights into what the view of the profession is at grassroots level. One of the best aspects about these courses at Coláiste Dhúlaigh, noted by several students, is that they’re only a year long. This is a far less daunting prospect than signing up to a four-year program, whilst offering a flavor of what is to come should they decide to pursue further study. The benefit of this softer entry is reflected in the survey results we collected; over 90% of students said they would recommend Engineering to their peers and two-thirds said they planned to undertake further study within the field. In a similar sentiment to what I thought when I was in their position, students were split 50:50 as to whether they would like to work on site or in an office when they entered the working world. When asked about their favorite aspects of the course, the resounding response was that they loved the hands-on elements of the course in the workshops. On this basis it’s easy to see why Engineers’ Week is effective in recruiting students; it adapts practical work into fun events in a more engaging setting, greasing the creativity wheels and hopefully sparking an interest in the subject.
One stark finding from our surveys, albeit not surprising, was the male to female ratio in the class of 20:1. The position of Women in STEM is often touted as the industry’s largest shortcoming, and rightly so. Gender imbalance has been a historic issue in Engineering, not just in Ireland but globally. Our critical skills shortage is exacerbated by leaving women as an untapped resource in our workforce. Women constitute only 12% of new entrants into Engineering courses, and a miserable 6% of construction apprenticeships. An Engineers Ireland report identified the key barriers to encouraging women to pursue STEM careers as:
- Negative stereotypes towards STEM subjects and careers
- Fragmented information about STEM career paths
- A lack of information and understanding of parents
- A disconnection between the necessary skills requirements and girls’ choices for Leaving Certificate subjects
Fortunately, we can report that there is welcome progress in raising awareness around this issue and launching ambitious targets to promote gender equality. IWISH, is an initiative that aims to inspire, encourage and motivate young female students to pursue careers in STEM through annual conferences, interactive exhibitions and campus-based programmes reaching 12,000 students so far. Introducing young women to impressive role models in a variety of STEM fields is hugely influential in encouraging them to consider the career. A 2017 report by Accenture notes that early intervention by parents and teachers is paramount to alleviating negative perceptions about STEM, offering support to young girls who have shown an interest in the subject. Only about a third of secondary school parents would feel confident explaining what an Engineer does. STEM subjects are objective, so they can require guidance, patience and determination to really understand the material involved, not always provided to younger female students. John Halligan, Minister for Training and Skills, is seeking to double the number of women undertaking apprenticeships in Ireland this year through the extension of grants and creation of new courses. Young women must be better informed and understanding of the merits of apprenticeships to build our talent pipeline in the hard-hat industries.
Engineers are critical to our environment, our economy and to improving the way we live and work. It is estimated that 6,000 new Engineering jobs will be created in Ireland this year, and so it is paramount that we demonstrate to young people that Engineering offers a diverse career that is both rewarding and accessible. Engineers’ Week plays a key role in the multi-faceted approach we must take to ensure Ireland remains a center of Engineering excellence.