Bridging the skills gap: Women-only engineering academy opens in Sheffield

Yorkshire has produced many distinguished engineers, but not many of them have been women. That’s partly because there are so few women in the sector, and Yorkshire is no special case in this respect – the problem is a national one.

Anita Straffon (Deputy Chief Executive of Sheffield College), Rachel Topliss (Head of Employer Academy Partnerships) and Tony Goddard (Training Manager, Liberty Steel) are collaborating to deliver the Liberty Steel Female Engineering Academy at The Sheffield College's Olive Grove Campus. PHOTO: Simon Hulme.
Anita Straffon (Deputy Chief Executive of Sheffield College), Rachel Topliss (Head of Employer Academy Partnerships) and Tony Goddard (Training Manager, Liberty Steel) are collaborating to deliver the Liberty Steel Female Engineering Academy at The Sheffield College's Olive Grove Campus. PHOTO: Simon Hulme.

In fact, the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineers in Europe; just 12 per cent of the engineering workforce – less than one in eight – is female.

Yet that could be set to change with the opening this month of a new engineering academy in Sheffield, backed by one of the city’s major employers.

Liberty Steel Female Engineering Academy has just welcomed its first cohort of young trainees at The Sheffield College’s Olive Grove campus, with the aim of helping address the skills gap – and, ultimately, boosting the region’s economic growth.

The first intake at Liberty Steel Female Engineering Academy started their studies earlier this month.

“It’s a ‘throw in the dark’ in a way,” says Tony Goddard, training delivery manager at the academy’s sponsor, Liberty Speciality Steels.

“We’re looking to see if the opportunity to study together as a group of girls will encourage other girls to try this engineering course. If it works, brilliant.

“As part of this package we want those who do start this year to act as ambassadors and go into schools themselves to promote engineering. It’s that snowball effect – that’s what we’re looking for.”

The 15 school-leavers will be studying for a BTEC Extended Diploma in Engineering Level 3 – equivalent to A Levels – with a focus on electrical technology and electronics. Liberty Steel, which employs nearly 2,000 people at its Stocksbridge and Rotherham sites, will provide real-life experience and work opportunities at its own training centre.

Liberty Steel Female Engineering Academy at Olive Grove Campus of The Sheffield College. PHOTO: Simon Hulme.

“The contract we have with Liberty is co-deliver and co-design,” says Rachel Topliss, The Sheffield College’s head of employer-academy partnerships and work-related activity.

“That means that Liberty will sit with our staff and head to look at how best to deliver the curriculum. Liberty will be sending in mentors to work with the young women, setting projects and taking them on site visits. What we’re trying to create is the real world of work so they’re not going out there unprepared.

“The classroom is actually branded as if it were part of the Liberty company, so the colours are there, and they wear the Liberty uniform.

“We’ll do all the underpinning knowledge, but then they’ll go out into the Liberty workshop to look at what’s really happening on the ground, which is really important.”

Following the course, trainees can go onto an extended diploma in engineering and then an HNC, or to university to study engineering.

“What we’re trying to do is ensure that young women understand that actually there’s a really good career pathway for them,” says Anita Straffon, deputy chief executive of The Sheffield College.

“We’re trying to make it equal. The whole point of running an educational establishment is to make sure young people understand they can do anything they want to do, and engineering is something that we want to try and encourage young women into, to make it an equal playing field for all.”

But equality is not the only reason the initiative is important; the UK also needs to train as many engineers as it can. Engineering generated 21.4 per cent (£1.2 trillion) of the UK’s £5.7 trillion turnover in 2018, yet there is currently a shortfall of 56,000 engineers.

What’s more, that figure is on the rise; it is forecast that between 2014 and 2024, over 17 per cent of the nation’s 13 million job openings will be in engineering – that’s 2.5 million over 10 years, according to the 2019 update to Engineering UK: The state of engineering, a report published in 2018 by Engineering UK.

Yet worryingly, girls’ interest in STEM subjects and engineering appears to wane as they get older. Nearly half of girls (46 per cent) aged 11-14 would consider a career in engineering, but among girls aged 16-18, the proportion drops to a quarter (25 per cent).

“We’ve always had an issue with careers advice and guidance within the schools sector,” says Ms Straffon. “We’re trying to make sure that this goes even lower than secondary school – it starts at primary school. The disparity between boys and girls going into STEM-related subjects at school and college undoubtedly contributes to the skills gap.”

Among engineering undergraduates, just 15 per cent are women, according to the Women’s Engineering Society, and despite them being more likely to achieve higher grades than their male peers, many drop out of the engineering workforce following graduation, leading to the 12 per cent figure already mentioned.

At apprentice level, the situation is worse; in the 2017-18 academic year, just 8.8 per cent of those starting engineering-related apprenticeships in England were female (in Scotland it was lower still, at 3.2 per cent).

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that part of the problem lies with the engineering sector itself, whose male predominance is often reflected in its culture. Strikingly, substantially more women (18.5 per cent) are in an engineering role outside the engineering sector than within it (9.7 per cent).

But as Ms Straffon points out, the problem begins much earlier, and the decision to launch a female-only academy is guided by numerous studies which have indicated single-sex education can be better for girls – and boys – for certain purposes.

A systematic review of nine studies, carried out in 2002 at the EPPI Centre in the University of London’s Institute of Education, concluded that single-sex learning could be effective in increasing the self-confidence of girls and encouraging them to experiment with non-gender-traditional activities – exactly what the new academy is aiming for.

“We would always encourage young people to ‘step outside the box’,” says Ms Straffon.

“If a young woman is thinking ‘well, it’s something I could be interested in’, we will encourage them all the way through the programme. So they’ll have a tutor mentor to make sure they’re enjoying their course and understand it, and that they’re gaining the workplace knowledge they need. It’s about embracing what’s new for them and taking that risk.”