Engineering is a large and diverse sector which is vital for the UK economy. It represents a considerable proportion of the UK workforce, with 18% of the UK working population based in engineering and at least 15% of the working population in every region in jobs that relate to the sector.
Engineering also has a relatively strong reputation for social inclusion, possessing a great variety of job roles and entry routes. However, there remain some questions about the extent to which this inclusive reputation can be supported by evidence.
This report, produced by The Bridge Group for the Sutton Trust, provides a closer look at access to and progression within the sector, focusing primarily on those in higher managerial and professional roles.
The class pay gap in engineering.
The proportion of professionals in engineering from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
The proportion of students eligible for free school meals gaining A*-C in GCSE physics.
- Recent data from the Labour Force Survey shows that 21% of those working professional jobs in engineering are from a lower socio-economic background (SEB), compared with just 6% of doctors, 12% of journalists, 13% of professionals in law, 15% of management consultants and 17% of accountants. This is however still below the figure for the wider workforce, which stands at 29%.
- While the ‘class pay gap’ is smaller compared with most other professional sectors, in professional engineering roles there remains a significant gap, even when controlling for prior qualifications. In engineering, those from higher SEB earn on average £2,483 more per annum compared with those from other SEBs (when controlling for factors including education, geography, gender and ethnicity). This ‘class pay gap’ is lower compared with many other professions – for example among finance managers (£8,104), doctors (£6,996), and IT professionals (£3,973).
- While access to professional roles in engineering is more equal than many other sectors, progression is a challenge. In engineering, almost three quarters (71%) of people in their thirties from higher SEB are in managerial or professional roles, compared with 63% among all other occupations. The figure is just 39% for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
- Organisations and opportunities for professional opportunities are more widely spread geographically (and, in particular, are less centred in London and the South East) compared with most other sectors offering highly skilled jobs. In considering the whole sector, for example, fewer than one in six (15%) of engineering jobs are in London, and a high proportion of businesses are located in areas of socio-economic disadvantage.
- Engineering is a relatively technical, and therefore potentially more meritocratic, profession compared to others such as law, which may help with socio-economic diversity in the sector. This is because performance and progression may be less subjectively assessed, and softer signals of talent, often more available to those from higher SEB (such as signalling ‘polish’ and ‘status’) may be less relevant in this environment compared with other professional areas.
- There are considerable barriers in the educational pipeline to professional engineering roles. Accessing an engineering degree often requires high attainment at school. However, while 71% of pupils not eligible for FSM achieve A*-C GCSE in maths, this is just 44% for FSM pupils. In physics, this figure is 23% non-FSM pupils, compared with only 8% for those eligible for FSM.
- There is limited access to triple science at GCSE, which is more acute among schools in areas of socio-economic disadvantage. This is compounded by the decline of Design and Technology (also more acute among schools in areas of socio-economic disadvantage) – a subject that is considered key to developing young people’s skills and interests in this area.
- Individual firms and engineering professional bodies should collect and analyse data on SEB. This will enable firms to identify gaps and inequalities in applications, hires, progress and/or retention, allowing them to target initiatives accordingly and monitor progress over time.
- Regulators and sector bodies should work across the sector to establish a consortium of engineering firms with the main purpose of advancing socio-economic diversity and inclusion. This approach has been effective in other professional fields, for example Access Accountancy and the alliance of law firms, PRIME. Adopting a similar approach has the potential to be of great benefit to the engineering sector.
- Senior leaders in engineering firms should develop tailored strategic approaches to inclusion and progression in relation to socio-economic diversity. Efforts should be embedded within team leaders’ responsibilities, and considered across an organisation’s people strategy, including in processes relating to pay, bonus and reward, performance review, work allocation and client and customer management.
- Firms should explore in detail the typical progression routes in their workforce, and introduce clear pathways to support mid-career transition from technical/operational roles, to middle or senior level management roles for those from lower SEB. This transition into senior roles often requires skills, attributes, and sometimes additional qualifications, that are quite distinct from those developed in technical roles. The attributes that begin to matter more as people progress into senior roles can often be more readily available to those from higher SEB, including confidence, gravitas, status signalling and networking.
- Strategies to advance socio-economic diversity should connect with efforts to support greater diversity in other areas, including gender and ethnicity. People do not experience their diversity characteristics in isolation, and the evidence indicates that more equal progression by SEB is highly likely to have a positive effect in other diversity areas. Understanding these connections in the quantitative data, and through hearing people’s lived experiences, will enable engineering firms to adopt strategies for diversity and inclusion that are complementary and mutually reinforcing, rather than in competition.
- Engineering firms should look at ways to widen work experience opportunities and insight days for young people, especially for those from lower SEB. This can be challenging in the sector, because of health and safety concerns (and exacerbated by the pandemic), but we know from research that giving young people a chance to gain workplace insights has a positive effect, especially among pupils from lower SEB, and particularly in sectors where the range of roles and entry routes are expansive.
- Further research is needed to understand better where there are barriers to access and progression in engineering. For example, policy changes should be informed by more detailed investigation of the comparative effect of differential access to school subjects among pupils by SEB, and differential attainment levels, on educational progression routes that lead to careers in engineering.