Engineers working on Crossrail

Engineering more socio-economically diverse than other sectors, report finds

Image credit: Arup, BECHTEL

Engineering roles are typically more socio-economically diverse than most other sectors, a report has found, but it also warns that educational barriers threaten to close the door on the profession for people from poorer backgrounds.

The study from the Sutton Trust and the Bridge Group found that just over one in five (21 per cent) professionals in engineering are from a low socio-economic background, which is higher than doctors (6 per cent), journalists (12 per cent) and professionals in law (13 per cent) – although still lower than the workforce as a whole (29 per cent).

One potential reason for this is that engineering jobs “are far more geographically spread” than other professions, and in particular are less centred in London and the South East.

Previous research by both the Sutton Trust and the Bridge Group has highlighted unequal access to many leading professions, with young people from poorer homes often facing barriers to get a foot in many industries.

The report suggests that other sectors should look to provide opportunities that are more evenly spread throughout the UK, to balance the trend of having to move to London or the South East to get ahead professionally.

However, while professional roles in engineering are more diverse than many other sectors, pathways to entering the profession can still be difficult for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Barriers include disparities in GCSE attainment and differences in access to subjects like triple science and physics. The split between students taking vocational and academic routes also risks perpetuating inequalities. Vocational routes tend to attract more students from less well-off backgrounds, and these courses at level 3 can be less likely to facilitate entry to higher education, and so can limit career progression and professional recognition.

The research found that while pay gaps by socio-economic background are smaller in engineering than most other sectors, people from higher socio-economic backgrounds are still much more likely to progress to senior roles.

In engineering, almost three-quarters (71 per cent) of people in their thirties from higher socio-economic backgrounds are in managerial or professional roles, compared with just 39 per cent from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

The report calls for employers to collect and analyse data on socio-economic background to try and address the imbalance and for regulators to work across the sector to establish a consortium of engineering firms to work on advancing socio-economic diversity and inclusion.

James Turner, chief executive of the Sutton Trust, said: “Engineering offers fantastic career prospects, so it is great to see that the sector is performing better than most when it comes to socio-economic diversity.

“Opportunities in engineering are spread throughout the country, giving good employment prospects to young people from different regions and making an important contribution to levelling up.

“However, today’s report also highlights that there is more work to be done, particularly in supporting progression to senior roles. It is vital that the engineering sector continues its diversity and inclusion work to make sure it is accessing the very best talent from all sections of society. We hope that our recommendations today provide some useful insights on how to achieve this and some valuable lessons for other professions too”.

Nik Miller, chief executive of the Bridge Group, said: “There is much for the professions to learn from engineering, but also actions that are needed within this sector to enable more equal progression – especially to more senior roles.

“While engineering compares favourably against most other professional sectors in relation to socio-economic diversity and inclusion, there are still inequalities in access, progression and pay – and important relationships between this characteristic and others, including gender and ethnicity.

“Bringing together the range of research in this area, we hope this report will inspire action at a time when the imperative for social equality is clear – and the role of our engineering sector more vital than ever.”

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