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Thales Supports the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) Report Which Encourages Parliamentary Action

Ifeoma Noelin Okolie from Thales UK, reflects on the Parliamentary Launch of the IET Engineering Kids’ Futures Report and explains how making STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) more accessible is her greatest passion.

I felt honoured to represent Thales UK’s Chief Technical Officer, Dr Paul Gosling FREng FIET, at the Parliamentary launch of the IET's Engineering Kids' Futures Report, as a result of my work in STEM advocacy. The launch took place on Wednesday December 7th, at a reception hosted by Chi Onwurah CEng, MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central and the Shadow Minister for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy at an event attended by members of academia, education, government, STEM providers and advocacy and industry experts from across the UK.

It featured speeches from Chi Onwurah MP, Professor Danielle George MBE, Professor Bob Cryan CBE and Tony Ryan FRSA, which underpinned the importance of this Report. As a chartered Engineer and Fellow of the Institute herself, Chi Onwurah MP, spoke with great sincerity about her own experiences of often being the only black person in the room during her professional career in engineering, and addressed how a change in the circumstances as they stand would benefit not only those who are under-represented but develop a robust pipeline of engineering talent.

This is a strategy which is needed to achieve the government’s ambitions of facilitating a green industrial revolution and reinforcing the UK’s position as a ‘science and technology superpower’.This vision, she stated, underpinned her driving “belief” for why she pursued a career in engineering and subsequently in parliament; that politics and engineering are the twin engines of progress in our world.

Prof. Bob Cryan CBE, the president of the IET, highlighted the importance of embedding engineering in the core primary and secondary National Curriculum, which at present has no engineering education, and an optional GCSE-engineering delivery syllabus respectively. These deficiencies in engineering education excellence have led to a very low uptake at later career-subject decision points.

Prof. Cryan stressed that the IET is keen to encourage collaboration between the government, academics, and industry leaders and STEM education supporters, like myself, to help teachers demonstrate that engineering isn't remote from science, technology, maths and creativity, but rather features within all four fields.

What has particularly struck me are the statistics around the £1.5 billion skills shortage that currently exists in the industry as a result of a shortfall of over 173,000 workers in the STEM sectors. In practical terms, that works out to roughly 10 positions at each company that need to be filled; a figure which, from my experience within the sector, could be higher.

Although the mere existence of these vacancies might point to a means of increasing the engineering population, it does not equate to an easy solution for the equally pressing matter of greater diversity. The report stresses that there's no quick way to improve that state of affairs, when so many of the people we're trying to reach don't even think of engineering as a viable career choice.

There's a lot of truth in the statement that you can't be what you can't see. And I would add, that you can't be what you can't understand. In my work as a STEM advocate, I often visit schools, with a keen focus on primary schools, as I believe that early awareness and stimulation is of paramount importance. I try to illustrate how engineering affects young people in their day to day life. I set the kids puzzles and we play games together and, without knowing it, they're demonstrating key engineering skills; which I then bring to their attention.

When you hear 'engineering', I think many people's minds leap to ‘otherworldly’ and ‘unattainable’ ideas and aspirations. There appears to be a lack of understanding that engineering begins with a desire to improve and safeguard simple, every day life.

I aim to show how something as every day as crossing the road relies on risk analysis principles, which are the same principles I have repeatedly applied in my safety engineering career. Once young people understand that these things aren't so otherworldly, they might find themselves thinking that this is a field of work they can aspire to.

While it was my dream to work in engineering, I think for a lot of people from backgrounds similar to mine, it isn’t a dream of theirs, since they may not know the job exists, or that it has use for their skills and interests.

If I hadn't had uncles who inspired my desire, would I have felt that this was a suitable career for me, considering the prevalent gender-career bias towards female engineers in Nigeria at the time? (A bias, which still exists even here in the western world.) Was the primary educational curriculum drawing an adequate link between my initial aptitude for maths, science and especially creativity and a possible career path in engineering? Did we have role model days where female engineers came to inspire us? Was the concept of ‘engineering’ broken down to simply meaning ‘problem-solving’, ‘improvement’, ‘creating’, or ‘beautifying’? The short answer is NO.

My work promoting STEM is the best thing I do. I love my career in engineering, but to introduce others to a wonderful world of opportunities within STEM is even more rewarding. Raising consciousness and making a new world of work, possibly in engineering, available to the next generation, is something that we all have a pivotal role to play in. 

As Prof. Danielle George MBE aptly pointed out, no matter what governments might set out to accomplish, there's a call for all advocates, industry experts, educators, parents, carers, etc. both as individuals and as collectives, to help engineer a better future for ourselves and our kids.

On reading the IET’S report my hope is you will be inspired to new or continued action in support of the government’s adoption of its recommendations.