“We have an image of what it means for surgical procedures to save a life or to seek justice in a court battle. The engineer has no such positive identity in the popular consciousness.”

To mark Engineering Skills Week and the publication of NCUB’s engineering statistics dashboard, Roma Agrawal highlights the barriers created for young people seeking an engineering career. The award winning structural engineer challenges the common misconceptions of the profession and explains how we can create a fresh and attractive identity for engineers.
“I was at a party at a flat on the Thames earlier this year with a breath-taking view of the Shard. People were talking about it, and discussing what a beautiful building it was. While I felt an immense pride at having contributed to its design, I also noted that nobody at the party was commenting on what a feat of engineering the structure is.
This got me thinking about how people perceive careers and the contributions those jobs make to society. We all know what a doctor or a lawyer does. We have an image of what it means for surgical procedures to save a life or to seek justice in a court battle. The engineer has no such positive identity in the popular consciousness.
Our perception of an engineer falls somewhere between a builder, a mechanic and a washing machine repair man – and the image is never a woman. This lack of a clear identity deters people from being interested in what engineers actually do. It acts as a barrier for bright young people from different backgrounds seeking the many opportunities and challenges that engineering provides as a career.
In order to attract more people – and especially women – into our profession, I believe we need to create a fresh and attractive brand or identity for engineers. But how?
It is vital that professional engineers work with young students to show them why science and maths is creative, rewarding and fun. We must speak to teachers, careers advisors and parents too, because parents have a major influence on their children’s career choices. A recent survey carried out by my company, WSP, found that half of respondents felt working with teachers and adapting the school curriculum would help change the perception of what engineering is.
Once we’ve caught their attention, let us offer quality work placements and internships so that students can see first-hand the working life of engineers. What better way to experience how engineers work in teams, brainstorming ideas and solving problems? We should mentor pupils and ensure that this level of support continues throughout their careers.
We need more documentaries and shows on television, and articles in the print and digital media, which feature true engineering. We need to see visible role models in engineering, to whose careers our children can aspire. We need to redefine the term ‘engineer’.

Eighteen months ago I took part in a documentary about engineering, recording a short slot about my work. At the time, I considered this to be a unique and one-off opportunity. I’ve been amazed by the level of interest that has followed my appearance: people are genuinely interested in an issue to which they previously had very little exposure. Let’s build on this.

I believe that implementing even a few of these proposals on a national scale would have measurable benefits to the number of women in the industry and to the state of engineering.”

Roma Agrawal is an associate structural engineer at WSP. Follow her on Twitter: @RomaTheEngineer