Smart Machines & Factories
Encouraging the next generation of engineers
Published:  05 November, 2019

What do Facebook, Gatwick Airport and Network Rail have to do with machines and factories? A lot, according to Primary Engineer CEO Dr. Susan Scurlock, MBE, who is changing the way that careers in professional engineering are seen by pupils, parents, teachers and engineers themselves.

With the launch in August 2019 of these three new national funders of the Primary Engineer “If you were an engineer, what would you do?” competition which engages more well-known brands in the UK, you would be hard pushed to find more influential collective of champions of STEM skills.

Susan explains that children are surrounded and inspired by engineering every day, from the 21st century apps and social media on their devices to the timeless allure of railways and the excitement of airports and aeroplanes: “Our Primary Engineer programmes are designed to connect that inspiration with the learning that makes the career choice possible, so we’re delighted to have direct support from global brands such as Facebook, Gatwick Airport and Network Rail.”

Primary Engineer, a not-for-profit organisation, also trains teachers to deliver engineering projects and actively encourages engineering firms of all sizes to think about ways in which they can help the engineering ecosystem to help itself overcome an impending skills crisis.

The national shortage of engineers affects both the digital and physical engineering professions and is rooted in a lack of uptake for STEM subjects among children. Not many school-leavers who are Facebook, WhatsApp or Instagram users, for example, will give a second thought to the army of software engineers who develop and maintain the platforms – or the career vacancies that exist in the exciting digital engineering arena. Similarly, gamers wearing Oculus VR headsets might not stop to consider the engineering involved in immersive technologies or the dearth of skills needed to take the industry forward. The brand behind WhatsApp, Instagram and Oculus, Facebook Inc, is currently advertising hundreds of global opportunities in STEM and Engineering careers and is keen to play a direct role in encouraging tomorrow’s applicants.

Rachel Burton, Facebook’s HR director of engineering, EMEA said: “We are committed to investing in a future workforce that is as diverse as the communities we serve. As part of that commitment, Facebook London has joined as a national partner for Primary Engineer’s “If you were an engineer, what would you do?” competition to encourage more young people from diverse backgrounds to pursue a career in technology and engineering. Addressing the skills and diversity gap in engineering is a long-term process, but we continue to work with government, industry leaders, non-profit organizations, and academic institutions to find effective and impactful solutions.”

More traditional professional engineering careers for children with an interest in aeroplanes and trains are equally well catered for with these three additional national partners. Gatwick Airport’s 85,000 employees combined with Network Rail’s 37,000 employees dotted around the UK make for an eye-watering number of ‘engineering ambassadors’ who are able to reach local schools and spread the word about careers in engineering – and making the most of these connections is what Primary Engineer is all about. “This is where the literal link between the partnerships comes in” explains Susan: “Where you’ve got planes and trains, you’ve got manufacturing companies, factories and machines, it’s an interdependent relationship which creates its own energy.”

Antony Yates, head of engineering, Gatwick Airport, said: “Inspiring the next generation of engineers and a new pipeline of talent is vital for Gatwick Airport and thousands of other businesses up and down the country. This competition “If you were an engineer, what would you do?” brings engineering to life for tens of thousands of children and we are proud to support it and the creativity it generates. In parallel, we are also working with Primary Engineer and Secondary Engineer on a three-year programme in twenty local schools to make careers in engineering interesting to all, irrespective of gender or socio-economic background.”

Andrew Haines, chief executive at Network Rail added: “We’re encouraging more people into engineering and that’s why we’re getting involved in initiatives that bring the sector to life and help stimulate young people’s creativity and inquisitiveness. The Primary Engineer’s “If you were an engineer, what would you do?” competition will reach tens of thousands of young people over the year and we’re proud to be a part of it. We are looking for the next generation of innovators and engineers to join us and help us to deliver a reliable service for our passengers. I cannot wait to see the ideas that get put forward this year.”

The national launch with Facebook, Network Rail and Gatwick Airport, introduces another element to competition which in 2018 ran in eleven areas across the UK engaging over 49,000 school children. Throughout the school holidays, when Gatwick Airport runs at its busiest, visitors were asked to vote on their favourite creation from eleven local winning designs, each one brought to life by their university engineering partners.

The competition starts with a discussion with engineers enlightening both teachers and pupils about the creativity in engineering and how it is applied to problem solving. As a response pupils look for problems that could be solved with an engineering solution. They draw and annotate their idea and write a letter to an engineer explaining why they should choose their idea to build. Each entry is read by an engineer, each person entering receives a certificate, many are displayed at exhibitions around the UK, hundreds are resented with special awards and this year 11 were chosen to be built by our university partners. Adds Susan.

It's no secret that the future of engineering needs a new influx of talent. Who knows what the primary school children involved in Primary Engineer’s programmes will be working on in twenty years’ time? One thing is for sure, those that are captured now and encouraged to follow an engineering career will change the world.

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