STEM ambassadors bemoan careers advice
Image credit: Dreamstime
The engineering and technology sectors are continuously striving to get more young people into STEM careers. But what advice were the engineers and technicians of today given in their school years?
Fortunately for anyone working today in telecommunications, advice back in the 19th century was largely ignored. “The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not,” declared William Preece, chief engineer of the British Post office, in 1876. “We have plenty of messenger boys.”
Variations of famously wrong forecasts litter history – “the horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty” (advice to Henry Ford from the president of Michigan Savings Bank, 1903) through to the confident predictions that television – and later the internet – will never catch on, vacuum cleaners will be nuclear powered, post delivered by guided missiles, helicopters will replace cars... and so on.
So, pity those charged with advising today’s teenagers about tomorrow’s careers, when we don’t even know what they will look like.
It’s a big ask for teachers to remain up to speed with changing technology and careers while still doing their day job. As London secondary school teacher Leon Cameron remarked at a recent Amazon-led careers event: “If I want to know about tech, I ask my students.” Much work has been done in schools to improve patchy provision of careers advice – which has in some schools simply been a poster stuck on a door. Many who have found their way into science, technology and engineering have done so in spite of the advice they received as a youngster.
Now secondary schools are required by government to lay on credible careers guidance. Today, say experts, some schools do it brilliantly, while others are too stretched. Four in ten teachers say students lack visible STEM role models in their lives, and six in ten say they have limited access to computer science resources. According to data from Capital Economics (commissioned by Amazon), jobs that require computer science, AI or machine learning skills are expected to increase by 40 per cent in the next five years. Most teachers say students would be more interested in AI and computer science if they had a chance to speak to real people leading the field.
Better advice might have helped science communicator Fran Scott, 40, find her feet earlier in life – today she considers herself an engineer in everything but name. “One of those career algorithms told me I should be a window dresser,” she recalls. “Which I dismissed at the time, but actually that’s not far from what I do today.” She’s modest – an experienced creator of props, science content and pyrotechnician, she’s also a familiar television and podcast presenter and was galvanised by the lack of female role models in her youth. “If you were good at science, you were advised to be a doctor or a vet,” she remembers. “No one ever talked about STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers.” She went on to study neuroscience, “it felt acceptable because everybody knows a bit about the brain”.
It was only at university that she found inspiration. “Whatever you’re into, there’s a career for you,” a tutor told her. “That’s when I first heard about science communication.” She began working at the Science Museum in 2014 and has gone on to set up her own production company. She’s worked with schools after developing a careers programme in association with Siemens.
“One school can know everything about engineering, while another doesn’t even know what it means,” she says. “The first thing we do with pupils is to get them to reflect on what they like – some of them have never been asked this before. We get them to think about the future and try to break it down.”
If only Scott had been around for a young Rob Marney, 42, who left his Lincolnshire school at 16 without a single GCSE. He persuaded local builders to take him on and enjoyed a couple of years of making tea and running errands for electricians, carpenters and plumbers on site. At school he’d simply been advised to “work harder”, which didn’t wash at the time. “We had a one-hour careers session and that was it. But I didn’t give their advice any respect, I just wanted to get out of school.”
Building site humour was, he recalls, “a steep learning curve”, but his employer spotted his potential. Marney took an apprenticeship to become an electrician, followed later by a degree and master’s in engineering and then chartership. Alongside engineering, he’s played Glastonbury a handful of times with his band – but has now hung up his guitar to concentrate on his engineering career. Since 2010 he’s worked at engineering consultancy Cundall, and now visits schools to relate his unusual journey – and dispense more nuanced career advice than he ever received. “I want them to know if you’re not quite as academic there’s still a route for you. We’re all different.”
Just 4 per cent of young people currently start an apprenticeship after their GCSEs, though a law change in September 2022 means all state-funded secondary school students in England must now receive independent careers guidance, with information about apprenticeships and technical as well as academic training options.
Mechanical engineer and broadcaster Dr Shini Somara, 43, did actually follow the career advice she was given, “but as I went further along in my career, it became obvious that there were a variety of exciting choices and pathways I could take, given my skill sets and interests”, she tells E&T.
Somara was a curious kid who took machines apart to look inside them and find out how they worked. “I love building and making things,” she explains, but stressed she also loved to sketch and loved performing arts. Being a mechanical engineer, broadcaster and author of children’s books combines both her curiosity in problem-solving and her creativity.
“My father is an engineer and his encouragement and support in nurturing my interest in asking questions and problem solving, led me to studying mechanical engineering,” she adds. “So, I did follow the career advice I was given, but I also followed my passions too and this has resulted in an interesting and unusual career journey.”
Last year, Engineering UK published a careers wish list: a careers hub in every secondary school, each with a dedicated STEM expert, an extra £40m for careers activities, better visibility in the curriculum for the range of STEM careers and better training for teachers about “modern engineering” careers.
“What pupils really want to hear about are the jobs, the real things that people do in the world of work and research,” says Dr Ajay Sharman of STEM Learning, which runs a STEM Ambassador scheme that sees some 25,000 professionals from 7,000 employers visit schools and colleges to spread the word among young people. STEM Learning also publishes a range of career resources and offers support, online mentoring and virtual careers fairs.
If dating app entrepreneur Jake Vygnan, 32, had taken advice to heart, he may never have embarked upon his technology career or gone on to build a couple of successful apps for LGBTQ+ and singles dating. He’s now co-founder at Taimi, with more than 15 million users, and Hily, with upwards of 22 million.
“One of the worst pieces of advice I ever received at school was ‘don’t bother with anything that you don’t know’,” he remembers. “This is the complete opposite of what we should be encouraging, especially to those who wish to be successful.” Like many entrepreneurs, he’s self-taught – as a designer, he pushed himself to get to grips with product development before launching his own business. While young people are now better informed about the potential of engineering and technology careers, they’re still not inspired to be entrepreneurial, he says. “But innovation is exactly what you need in tech.”
“Just keep your head down, don’t blow your own trumpet or talk about your ambitions.” This was the advice a 16-year-old Andy Evans, now 28 and known as Doddz, received from his boss during work experience. He’d declared his ambition to be a successful artist and, happily, it hasn’t stopped him. “But it did slow me down for some years,” he says. “Being ambitious is no bad thing. It’s quite dangerous to say things like that to young people.” He’s since carved a niche as an augmented-reality (AR) artist and works with fashion designers, musicians and brands to create AR experiences – from digital fashion to art and content. He fell into graphic design by chance, mistaking it for woodwork at A-level, but went on to study at university despite severe dyslexia. He’s learned how to work with the technology from “trial and error and the school of YouTube”, and has now created an AR course to help those starting out. “I feel education failed me,” he says. “I feel I fell through a net. But I’m still learning, and I will be for a while, as technology moves on.”
“Teachers tended to focus on telling you what you weren’t able to do,” recalls Stephen Johnson, founder of software engineering consultancy ROQ in Preston. “A sign of the times.” He was advised to become a bank or insurance clerk, because those were the jobs on offer locally. A work experience stint convinced him that banks were “as boring as hell”. He left university with a degree in marketing and management and fell by chance into technology. In 2009 he set up his business, which now runs graduate schemes and helps train apprentices. “I’ve really tried to get my own kids to consider a career in engineering and technology.” There’s nowhere near enough understanding in education, he believes, of market needs, despite a well-publicised skills gap. “There’s a huge opportunity for a regional college to grasp the nettle and provide exceptional courses supported by businesses who are crying out to help.”
At least times have changed in the decades since Tracey Richards, now 60, was told that engineering wasn’t for girls. It’s been 44 years since she walked into the sector “by accident”. Teachers at school had poured cold water on her ambitions. “I wanted to be a car mechanic but instead I was told to take up office work as girls weren’t allowed to do ‘men’s work’ at that time.” Now a production team leader at electronics manufacturer Mantracourt, she’s had a fulfilling career. “I have loved working in engineering since the day I set foot in (it)... engineering is so much fun.”
Film studies graduate Sophie Deverell, 31, had no idea what an engineer was at school – or that what she does today was even a career option – and this is an enduring problem, say careers specialists. After a stint in retail, she joined a Lloyds graduate scheme, went on to do an apprenticeship as a DevOps engineer, and now works in cloud services. “I decided on this to futureproof my skills... and I love to learn.” Although she didn’t disclose any actual career advice, she recommends the government platform Skills for Life, aimed at adult learners. “It’s great to know that more is now being done to promote this sector in schools.”
Follow your dream or play it safe? Striking a balance between dreams and reality is delicate, says Joseph Robbins, director of tutors The Profs. He finds that students are now keen to study STEM subjects at university “because they’ve heard of the high salaries and are often persuaded by their parents, perhaps forgetting the level of mathematical ability, analytical skills and innovative thinking needed to succeed in a STEM degree”. It’s difficult, he says, to pursue a career you don’t have a passion for. “There are no shoo-ins for a competitive university or role.”
But school students need to meet real people doing real jobs, says STEM Learning’s Sharman. “We need to humanise these roles. They hear about high-level science, but they need to see people who look like them, not just Brian Cox. We need to slash stereotypes. We need to bring the world of work back into schools and find people like the diverse STEM ambassadors we manage, with stories who can have an impact upon youngsters.”
What were you advised to do at school if not engineering? Let us know!
Career advice misses
Myles McSweeney, 4D Data Centres, Redcentric Group
“I followed advice and studied law and hospitality before going into IT. I’m very happy with my choice. The IT sector is vast and we’re expecting teachers to help students decide if it’s a career for them. IT was always the correct fit for me but due to lack of understanding of school guidance counsellors I was pushed towards a more conventional industry that was better understood.”
Lacey Hunter, co-founder, web3 start-up TechAid
“By far the worst piece of career advice I received in university was to ‘not follow my passion’. Better to learn marketable skills to land a well-paying job. By ensuring you pursue something that will pay the bills and enable you to grow and get real-world experience, you’ll be better off down the line.”
Ashleigh Ainsley, chief executive, Colorintech.org
“Worst advice I received? ‘Blend in with the team, don’t stand out, don’t speak up. Keep a low profile for 12 months and then start to show off your personality and ideas.’ Suffice to say, I ignored it.”
Daniele Servadei, co-founder, CEO, Sellix
“I was initially told I should go into fencing. I would have loved to try to turn my passion into a career, but I still much preferred coding. I founded Sellix at 18, and now lead it while continuing my studies.”
George Protopapas, digital marketer, founder, Cavecrack
“The worst piece of career advice I’ve ever received in school was ‘pick a lane now before it’s too late’. There are many people who become miserable from picking something simply from rushing, only to find they’ve made a massive mistake. It’s OK to take time to consider every option.”
A digital solution to support STEM learning
Many teenagers find selecting their GCSE choices stressful, as the decision can determine their future education and career options. The 2022 goIT Co-op Academy Challenge invited Year 9 students to design a prototype app that could support their peers’ educational choices.
GoIT is Tata Consultancy Services’ (TCS) flagship global programme seeking to bridge the STEM learning gap in schools.
For the competition, designed to show young people how digital innovation can solve real-world problems and encourage them to pursue a STEM career, TCS invited students from 11 Co-op Academies across the North of England to design a digital solution to help with GCSE choices.
The teams had to develop app concepts before submitting a three-minute pitch video and deck to their teachers for judging. The top two teams from each school then attended a goIT workshop event at Co-op’s headquarters in Manchester, where they presented their solutions to a judging panel.
The winning idea was for an app called InCtrl developed by pupils at Co-op Academy Priesthorpe. Its features include a quiz, subject information pages and a facility to book a call with a careers advisor.
“They had created a prototype, carried out research into what support and competition is already out there, and how they could develop and enhance the app in years to come,” says Jo Sykes, director of careers education at the Co-op Academies Trust.
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.