Perceptions of STEM: The boiler is broken….the ‘engineer’ is coming to repair it

Subscribe to Campaigning blog feeds


A few weeks ago we blogged on some of the highlights from a new BIS report which looked at how young people’s careers choices are influenced by their peers, teachers, families and indeed celebrities.

The second part of the report focused on the perceptions of STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths. Today we take a look at some of the findings and offer some of our own comments and ideas.

Perceptions of STEM are well established

STEM has an image problem…

It is probably of no surprise that the report found that that STEM has an image problem, and particularly when we focus in on engineering.

Firstly the range of jobs that young people bought up when talking about engineering were limited – with young people citing work that involved fixing cars, trains and planes.

Yes I have visited sites that make cars (including racing cars!) but I have also visited companies that make missiles, prosthetic limbs and surgical equipment – it’s all engineering. And when we look at manufacturing more widely I was the jammy person in our office that got to visit a high-end handbag factory and have my eyes on a cosmetics site next!

Action: We need to increase the opportunities young people have to experience the world of engineering. We know EEF members are already doing a lot in this area (seven in ten offer work experience and half offer site visits) - we just need more.

..and it’s a lot worse amongst young girls

Unfortunately, but again unsurprisingly, boys were a bit more clued up about the jobs in engineering than girls. Girls saw engineering as ‘quite boring’ and male dominated. The latter you can argue is true as the industry still has some way to go to tackle the gender divide. But ‘quite boring’ is something I must fundamentally disagree with.

Action: Following on from the first, we need to make sure more young girls are taking up these opportunities. One company told me that when they offer work experience to schools they tell the school that they must send one girl and one boy. Simple yet effective.

Engineering is seen as difficult, requiring a lot of maths.

Yes, if you want to pursue a career in engineering, and in particular certain sub-sectors of engineering then you may need to take maths at A-level for example, and also Physics, but increasing manufacturers are telling us when they are recruiting engineering apprentices for example they aren’t just looking for qualifications in maths and science but 77% say a willingness to learn and 71% look for a passion for manufacturing.

77% of young people agree you need to be really clever to work in STEM (Source: BIS ‘Project STEM)

Action: We need to keep telling young people that subject choices matter. For this to happen we need to get careers advice right – but there’s no time for that issue now!

The ‘engineer’ is coming to fix the boiler

Then there’s that well known perception that engineering is low status – associated with the repair (man) that comes to fix the boiler. As the report finds, the consequence of the term engineer is used freely to describe someone who ‘fixes things’ (The number of times I have wanted to tear off a post-it note from a broken printer that says ‘the engineer is on the way’.

It’s not all doom and gloom – there are some positives too

(Thank goodness as we wouldn’t want to start our new website with a down heartened blog!)

Engineering is seen as practical

It’s seen as practical and young people like that idea – it’s seen as in reach for many and opening up a credible career pathway for those who perhaps don’t feel a traditional, purely academic route is for them. That’s just one of the many advantages of a career in manufacturing and engineering – there are ample pathways for young people to come into the industry and progress from shop floor to top floor.

It’s a career than involved problem solving and working as a team

It was also seen as collaborative – people working as a team, problem solving and this was seen as rewarding.

And there is money to be had!

The pay is decent. I’d say. Some of my favourite pay stats are –

  • The average engineering apprentice gets £7.03 per hour just to train
  • Engineering and technology graduates starting salary is on average £26,019 – a fifth more than for all graduates
  • A chartered engineer earns on average £60,000 a year.

So what’s the verdict?

In short, we need to be doing more to promote STEM to young people, and in a variety of ways. Many of the comments from the BIS report came from young people talking on Twitter (e.g. What was the point of me doing A-level maths? So glad I decided not to become an engineer….)

So tweet us your favourite engineering stats and comments @EEF_Economists #STEM #getmaking #MakeItBritain and let’s start to overcome some of these perceptions of STEM and really showcase the opportunities within engineering.


Head of Education & Skills Policy

Other articles from this author >
Online payments are not supported by your browser. Please choose an alternative browser or make payments through the 'Other payment options' on step 3.