Career ‘deflection’ sees UK engineering firms struggling to hold onto talent

The report, entitled ‘Career Deflection: Exploring Diversity, Progression and Retention in Engineering‘, was commissioned by world-renowned design, engineering and project management consultancy Atkins. It looks at how the impact of barriers to progress within a career in engineering are being distorted under an applied load over time.

The report also suggests that engineering is falling behind other professions in terms of offering progressive opportunities for all people. Atkins is calling for greater industry action to stem the brain drain and ensure talent remains within the industry.

Highlighting the impact of ‘career deflection’ on the earning potential and progress of women, ethnic minorities and disabled employees within engineering occupations and the wider engineering sector, the report seeks to shine a light on the intangible leaching of skills and experience away from the engineering industry.

The research behind the report, conducted by the Institute for Employment Studies, is based on fresh analysis of official labour market information sources and highlights how engineering in some areas fares worse on diversity measures than other professions, with the gap behind white male peers often no longer closing.

The report finds that assuming the overall proportion continues to increase at its current rate:

  • It could take until 2124 for there to be the same number of women as men working in engineering occupations overall.
  • It could take 50 years for the proportion of ethnic minorities in engineering occupations to reach the overall proportion of ethnic minorities in employment.
  • The proportion of Equality Act disabled workers in engineering occupations has consistently lagged behind the proportion of Equality Act disabled workers in all employment by around two percentage points.

The report also makes a number of recommendations, which Atkins will explore and develop with industry peers and partners over the coming months, such as:

  • Enhanced policies to tackle alternative working patterns.
  • Equal access to development opportunities.
  • Increased promotion of inclusive workplace culture.
  • Measures to address unconscious bias.
  • Greater use of data, metrics and feedback.

Richard Robinson, CEO of Atkins UK & Europe, commented: “Engineering will continue to be a critical part of how we create a better future for the planet and its people. A fundamental part of this will be attracting talent from a diverse range of backgrounds – and then retaining them by ensuring there are opportunities for all. We hope the findings of this report serve to accelerate the great work that has been happening over the past number of years and we call on the industry to work together to help affect that progress.”

In addition to recruitment, ‘career deflection’ is identified as a key driver of overall representation in engineering.

Despite significant efforts and progress from engineering bodies and the government to increase diversity through recruitment, the report highlights a range of drivers (coined ‘career deflection’) that create an underutilisation of talent, leading to below-average retention among certain groups.

Over the course of ten years, career deflections such as stereotyping, isolation and bias result in women leaving the profession at twice the rate of men (70 per cent and 35 per cent respectively), while more than half (55 per cent) of ethnic minorities abandon their career in contrast to 39 per cent of white people. This is significantly worse than other professions and, more worryingly, quite unlike other professional careers. The gaps are not closing quickly enough.

The report further highlights that many women and ethnic minorities are inadvertently driven out of the profession through ill-targeted promotions and training by well-intentioned colleagues. Despite more female engineers securing managerial or supervisory positions in 2020, the annual retention rate was five percentage points lower (90 per cent v 95 per cent). The rate of outflow for women to other occupations outside engineering is more than twice the rate of men and more than one in ten women aged 20-34 leave the profession to work elsewhere each year. Around a fifth of women leaving the engineering profession reported job dissatisfaction in the year before leaving.

In addition the lack of comprehensive workplace data relating to ethnic minorities, employees with disabilities and other intersectional groups across the engineering profession, means it is harder to develop policies and processes to affect meaningful change. There is a huge opportunity to accelerate change by coming together as an industry and sharing best practices, data and feedback.

Robinson added: “There is no doubt that huge efforts are being made in our industry and beyond to tackle diversity of recruitment and eliminate career deflections, but our report unveils some sobering findings. As an industry we bear a responsibility to act upon them. We commissioned this report because too often we acknowledge the challenges but struggle to find tangible solutions to drive material change. This report is designed as a rally cry to the industry to work together to accelerate the progress that has been made over recent years.”

Tony Wilson, director of the Institute for Employment Studies, said: “Despite decades of effort to address inequality and improve diversity in engineering occupations, barriers continue to be experienced by minority groups. More needs to happen to effect real change, for improvements to be seen and to narrow the gap. This is about so much more than giving everyone a fair chance, it is about preventing the wholescale waste of potential and talent.

“The whole sector needs to commit to tackle the pernicious influence of career deflection if the UK is to maintain its world-class standing in engineering and to meet the pressing challenges of delivering the UK’s infrastructure strategy.”

The skills shortage is a recurring theme within the engineering profession.

Yesterday, a group of over 150 world-leading engineers, scientists and technology giants, led by the IET, called on the UK government to plug the nation’s growing STEM skills gap, which is estimated to be costing the economy £1.5bn per year.

In an open letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the influential group has appealed to the government to work together with educators and industry to develop practical support for teachers of young children and to embed engineering in their existing STEM learning.

Earlier this month, a ‘Digital Leadership Report’ from the Harvey Nash Group found that future growth of the UK tech sector is seriously threatened by the yawning skills shortages gap, now reaching an all-time high.

Last month, a report by the parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee warned that inconsistent government policy on green jobs and a knowledge gap in necessary skills are resulting in missed opportunities and are highly likely to negatively affect the UK’s net-zero ambitions.