Don’t be too quick to dismiss social media, writes Tom Smith. It could be a valuable tool for improving the engineering industry’s image among young people and persuading them to join its global workforce
I want to start by telling you about my dad. You see, my dad is a fantastic engineer and a master at anything that involves mechanics. He can strip an engine down and put it back together in 30 minutes flat with his eyes shut. His mathematical skills are fantastic and, after turning to engineering, despite leaving formal education with no qualifications, he’s made an excellent career for himself.
Why is that important? Well, because apparently, there aren’t enough people like my dad anymore in the UK.
Let’s start with some of the well-documented facts and statistics: engineering is an ageing profession. In 2021, there was a spotlight shining on the state of engineering, with one report stating that the average age of people within the profession is increasing into the 50s.
There is also a substantial skills gap, with a report carried out by Search Consultancy in March 2021 showing that manufacturing and engineering was the worst affected sector for skills shortages, with 85% of businesses currently feeling the strain from a lack of skilled workers. Statistics reported in 2020 by Jonathan Lee also showed that almost one in five engineers in the UK are expected to retire in 2026.
Finally, yet crucially, there is nowhere near enough awareness about what an engineer actually does, with EngineeringUK stating that almost half of those between 11 and 19 years old say they know ‘little or nothing’ about what engineers do.
What we have known for a long time is that more needs to be done to promote a career in engineering at the school level, something that, in my opinion, is just as essential as subjects like Maths, English and Science.
Signs of progress
Movement in that area is starting to happen. You may have heard of the fantastic #EngineeringKidsFutures initiative, which is being led by a formidable group of more than 150 world-leading engineers and scientists, including figures like Major Tim Peake, Carol Vorderman MBE and will.i.am.
For context, #EngineeringKidsFutures is being led by Professor Danielle George, president of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), and has been built to urge the Government to help tackle the UK’s skills shortage by embedding engineering into current primary school learning.
“This focus and support for schools is fundamental if we want to future-proof the next generation of engineers,” George said. Her words could not ring more true.
However, there is another strand to this: We cannot dismiss the role that social media is already playing in re-engaging young people in a career in engineering. In fact, it can be argued that it, scarily, is doing a better job than education right now.
It’s impossible to argue with the trends. We live in a world dominated by social media, a world in which billions of short videos are consumed every day on platforms like TikTok and Instagram.
With that in mind, I hopped onto both platforms to find out how engineering related hashtags – used as a primary tool to reach specific audiences – are performing.
Natural curiosity is the biggest driver of the engagement figures. It’s no secret that video is the most popular form of content right now on social media. The dance phenomenon is a great example of this, constantly reinventing itself and creating trends and sequences for others to replicate and follow.
Engineering has gone down a different path, with its creators tapping into consumer curiosity by using video to showcase clever how-to guides and creative experiments.
Much of that content is being created by influencers like Mark Rober (767,000 followers) and Colin Furze (446,000 followers), as well as profiles like engineering_everything (198,000 followers), which are leading the way in promoting a career in engineering to a younger audience.
It’s my feeling that, actually, engineering is becoming cool again. People are beginning to understand that it’s not a boring job and a large part of that is down to the technological advancements we have seen over recent years.
Engineering is a very futuristic career. That is attracting more youngsters into the industry, and it’s platforms like social media that are, right now, leading the way in raising awareness about this.
But far more intervention is still required if we are to engage younger audiences and get them excited about a career in engineering. For far too long, education in this area has been neglected and, as a result, we have a generation in which there are more people leaving school with no basic knowledge of DIY than those who do.
As a nation, we’re far less hands-on than we used to be and over time, that has created a burden and reliance on those who have worked in engineering for years.
In the short term, the engineering industry has some difficult hurdles that it needs to overcome. But by incorporating elements of engineering into education from primary school age onwards and better engaging with tools like social media, we stand a far better chance of engaging Gen Z and bridging the gap over the long term.
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Tom Smith is CEO of Advanced Dynamics, a specialist in the supply of integrated machinery for packaging and labelling and the design of packaging/labelling production lines firstname.lastname@example.org