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Could the engineering sector make a fairer society?

26 July 2015

Engineering holds better prospects for people of all backgrounds than law, medicine or financial services, according to a new policy statement from the IMechE.

The IMechE's 'Social Mobility and the Engineering Profession' policy statement says that engineering careers offer greater opportunities for people of all backgrounds than careers such as law, medicine and politics. Making parents, teachers and school-children more aware of the real value of vocational routes into engineering could hold the key to greater social mobility.

Peter Finegold, who heads up Education and Skills at the IMechE says the engineering profession is well-placed to promote social mobility because unlike other high-value professions like medicine, people can pursue successful careers by completing apprenticeships.

“Apart from potentially being more affordable than completing a university degree, an apprenticeship also offers people the opportunity to focus on practical skills that are typically more transferable to the workplace than pure academic study," he says. “There needs to be a shift away from judging schools just on the number of leavers entering university and valuing modern apprenticeships as a viable alternative.

He goes on to say that business leaders across the spectrum agree that a vibrant engineering sector is the lynch pin to a healthy economy. He believes boosting the number of people pursuing engineering careers, whether through an academic or vocational route, will mean greater wealth for the UK as a whole.

According to the policy statement, ignoring the importance of engineering and modern apprenticeships will result in a persistent mismatch between the training and study choices made by young people and  real job opportunities, perpetuating an ongoing skills gap and social stagnation. It makes a number of key recommendations to government:

- make schools and colleges fully accountable for the provision of structured careers advice through the compulsory publication of student destinations.
- undertake a review of the options for changing the structure of post-16 education, specifically exploring the consequences of introducing a Baccalaureate-style approach on both academic and vocational routes, especially for economically vital sectors such as engineering.
- compel its careers and enterprise company to source, promote and record industry placements for teachers alongside meaningful work experience for pupils.

To download the full report, click here.

Meanwhile, a new report published by the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) shows that fewer than half of engineering graduates go into professional engineering jobs. The research in 'Pathways to success in engineering degrees and careers' also shows that students who study engineering at post-1992 universities (former polytechnics) are just as likely to get professional engineering jobs as those from Russell Group and other pre-1992 universities. In some cases, post-1992 students are, in fact, more likely to take up good engineering jobs.

The report also shows the many different prior qualifications taken by students who go on to study engineering and highlights that students do go on to achieve good degrees in engineering, even if they did not do well in A levels in maths and physics.

The publication of the report coincides with the launch of a new RAE project , which is working with major UK engineering employers to target women, black, Asian and minority ethnic students and other under-represented students across a range of universities from which they would not usually recruit. The HE Engineering Engagement Programme is being delivered as part of the Academy's diversity programme.

“Part of the issue with engineering graduates not choosing to go into engineering is because of a lack of visibility of employers on campus, while at the same time a range of other businesses from finance, retail and many other sectors will be providing attractive offers," comments director of Engineering and Education, Dr Rhys Morgan. "We need to work harder to show engineering students the exciting career opportunities on offer to them if they take up careers in the subject they chose”.

The RAE report can be downloaded here.

Glass floors and social ladders
According to new research from The University of Manchester, people who grew up in a working class family are more satisfied in later life than those from a higher class background.

The study by Dr Bram Vanhoutte and Professor James Nazroo, published in The Journal of Population Ageing, also found that English people who climb the social ladder are more content and happy when they get older than people in the United States who are similarly upwardly mobile.

The research sought to find out whether social mobility makes people happier in later life while taking into account people’s living conditions.

“Everybody believes that in the US it is easier to climb the social ladder whereas in England there is less social mobility," says Dr Vanhoutte. "There is some truth in that, while almost half of those born in a working class family will retire working class in England. This figure is only a third in the US.

“We’ve discovered that English people who do manage to upgrade their social status substantially end up with a greater sense of autonomy and control. In America on the other hand, people who have risen in society’s ranks are less satisfied than those who haven’t, raising serious questions on the practical merits of living the American dream.”

The study also suggests that growing up in a highly educated household in the US, does make a difference to the sense of happiness in later life.

Meanwhile, new research, conducted by Abigail McKnight of the London School of Economics for the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (SMCPC), has exposed the reality of a ‘glass floor’ in British society that protects less able, better-off children from falling down the social ladder as they become adults.

SMCPC chairman, Alan Milburn, says the ‘glass floor’ is as much a problem as the ‘glass ceiling’ in inhibiting social mobility in Britain.

The research uses the British birth cohort survey to look at the impact that social background has on earnings at age 42 and whether this can be explained by early cognitive ability, qualifications, school type, parental education level and non-cognitive skills such as self-esteem and behaviour.

It finds that children from more advantaged social backgrounds who are assessed at age 5 as having low cognitive ability are nonetheless significantly more likely to become high earners than their high ability peers in lower income households.

Children from high income backgrounds who show signs of low academic ability at age 5 are 35 percent more likely to be high earners as adults than children from poorer families who show early signs of high ability.

The research finds that social background and family income have a significant effect on the likelihood of being a high earner even after controlling for meritocratic factors such as cognitive and non-cognitive ability and qualifications achieved.

Parental education level and attendance at a private school or a grammar school all have a significant independent impact over-and-above their impact on academic attainment. Remarkably, the research also finds a clear correlation between the social background of a child’s grandfather and eventual labour market success.

The research concludes that better-off, middle-class parents are successful in effectively creating a ‘glass floor’ which protects their children from downward mobility and makes it harder for able children from less advantaged backgrounds to succeed.

You can download the LSE report from the government's website here.

Les Hunt

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