For years, the engineering industry has discussed its lack of diversity in reports, conferences, webinars and events. Corporate Social Responsibility has been considered and checks have been written. And yet, not a lot has changed. The industry continues to be largely dominated by white, middle and upper-class men.
This isn’t just a country-specific issue either. All around the world, women, people of colour and individuals from low socioeconomic backgrounds are underrepresented in the engineering sector.
In the United States, for example, Hispanic and Latino workers account for only 14% of STEM workers, despite making up 18% of the US workforce. Similarly, Black and African American workers account for 12% of the US working population but represent only 9% of the STEM workforce. And in Germany, just 18% of all engineers are women. In the United Kingdom and the United States, that number drops to 16.5% and 13.7% respectively.
As a result, many governments have started to implement diversity quotas within their contracts in a last-ditch attempt to course correct.
Diversity quotas can take on different forms depending on the goals they aim to achieve. For example, some contracts may mandate a certain number of apprentices from low socioeconomic backgrounds work on a project, while others may require employers to have a certain proportion of their workforce comprised of individuals from specific diverse groups.
While the type of quota may vary, one element always remains the same: if you don’t agree to the numbers, you don’t get the contract. This has led many companies to accept contracts with diversity quotas without any plan as to how they will meet those requirements.
So, are diversity quotas in the engineering industry really achievable?
For companies seeking out a quick fix, I’m inclined to say no, although it’s not impossible. With a long-term strategy, however, that actively works to overcome the systemic barriers preventing diversity in the industry, my answer would be a resounding yes – with the disclaimer that it may take a bit of time.
Blame the system, then change your system
According to the Tech Talent Charter Diversity in Tech 2022 Report, the UK economy could be missing out on as much as £63 billion a year in potential GDP – simply because tech companies aren’t attracting enough diverse talent.
This is an interesting statistic. Especially since the engineering industry’s lack of diversity is no secret, and yet, government contracts continue to demand that projects be carried out with a diverse team.
Let’s be honest, it doesn’t make much sense.
What governments and companies need to understand is that there's not going to be this light switch moment where, suddenly, we've tapped into this market – this diverse group – that we didn't know was there.
Finding diverse talent means investing in diverse talent. It needs to come from the grassroots – and it needs to start early.
Starting them young
Recent studies have shown that a child’s career aspirations are often linked to the 20 or so professions they are exposed to in adolescence, which often includes their teachers, doctors and parents.
This has serious implications for diverse groups. In the UK, for example, only 24% of engineers come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. This means that kids from these backgrounds aren’t seeing people they relate to in these roles – which makes engineering feel out of their reach.
Companies need to show these kids that the door is open and that there is a path for them to take, which they can do by partnering with or sponsoring organisations, like the Social Mobility Foundation, that support young people from low-income backgrounds.
In Bristol, for example, SThree worked alongside Bouygues, a construction company with a diverse workforce, to create an event for high school students, particularly girls aged 14 to 16, to introduce them to engineering. The event focused on showing them the different roles they could pursue, pathways they could take, qualifications they would need and more, with the hope that it would inspire them to take next steps.
It is important, however, that companies do not stop at merely generating interest. If these kids do go on to attend university or pursue an apprenticeship in engineering, companies need to make sure that the opportunities they’re providing are accessible to people who don’t have pre-existing industry networks from family and friends.
Is ‘refer a friend’ getting in the way of diverse recruitment?
So, we’ve covered the long-term, but what if you’re one of those companies who hasn’t planned ahead? How do you fulfil those short-term contracts?
You can start by changing traditional recruitment strategies like the ‘refer a friend’ system. In an industry that is overwhelmingly white and male, this tactic, which leans heavily on existing networks, is bound to get you more of what you already have.
Companies must completely rethink their recruitment strategy, including where they look. This is likely to involve moving away from LinkedIn, as many people from ethnic backgrounds do not use the platform for job searching.
Instead, companies should get involved with organisations like the Association For Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers and Women Who Code, as they are comprised of a large, diverse group of individuals and often have their own job board, where companies can pay to advertise their roles.
Is the degree really necessary?
Today, many roles that don’t actually need degree level education, require it on their person spec.
But what benefit does that have other than closing the door to a certain candidate pool?
As companies rethink their recruitment strategy, they need to reassess the core competencies and skill sets needed for each role. What’s learnable on the job? What can be taught in trainings? Does this need a master’s degree, or will a bachelor’s degree or apprenticeship suffice? If this does need a degree, can we look at more diverse universities?
Asking these questions will widen a company’s potential talent pool, as it will lead them to reassess what ‘good’ looks like – which can often be based on reaching an elite level of academia that may only be achievable through family connections, wealth or legacy.
Diversity of thought leads to better decisions
We’ve talked about the solutions to the problem, but why should companies care about having a diverse workforce?
First and foremost, it’s the right thing to do. Your business should reflect the community it serves.
On the business side of things, however, you need to understand the consumer and what they want and need. If you’re not part of that community, you’re not going to have the insight to come up with the best solution.
As Ainsley Robertson from Clio Labs puts it, “A homogenous team thinks the same, challenges each other less, innovates less and will therefore be lower performing.”
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