Back Story: Fiona McGarry, ‘Diversity gives rise to better solutions’
Image credit: Rachel Knowles
TV presenter Shini Somara talks to Fiona McGarry, engagement manager at Make UK, who is responsible for attracting more young people into STEM and engineering careers.
Shini Somara: Is manufacturing in the UK diverse?
Fiona McGarry: It’s probably one of the least diverse sectors within engineering. Only 29 per cent of the workforce and only 8 per cent of its apprentices are female. Less than 10 per cent of engineers and technicians come from an ethnic minority background. There’s a lot of work to be done in spite of a lot of work that has already been done over the last 15 years; unfortunately progress is slow.
In the last couple of years, I have started to see a shift. Younger people and parents are understanding that it isn’t a dirty, horrible, male-dominated, environment. There are also lots of exciting digital AI prospects and it’s a progressive and supportive environment.
The industry is aware of the necessity for diversity, because it enables a better understanding of customer needs. There is no point in designing solutions for just one homogeneous sector of society. Diversity, in other words, is better for business.
SS: What are the latest ways into manufacturing careers?
FMcG: Apprenticeships are a great route into engineering and not necessarily degree apprenticeships, but Level 2 and Level 3 apprenticeships. These qualifications are fantastic because not everybody is wired to excel in maths and physics at school. By nurturing these individuals, you create skilled, experienced engineers. They develop essential skills for the industry, including resilience, problem solving and creativity, and they must apply these skills from day one in the workplace. Apprentices earn and learn and make a difference to a business immediately. By focusing on degree routes, I believe we miss out on a lot of the young people that could come into the sector.
We work with a lot of big companies and small SMEs who need Level 3 workers to fulfil certain roles, which are not necessarily management roles. For example, there is a massive shortage of welders in this country. Young people really enjoy welding when they try it; until then, they assume it’s a dirty profession and not for them.
Apprentices also address the ageing workforce in our sector. Almost one-fifth of all workers in UK manufacturing are aged over 55. Less than 10 per cent are aged between 16 and 24. Over the next decade, 20 per cent of the workforce will retire. Apprentices allow industry to grow. They bring new skills and knowledge with them, especially during this time of digital transformation.
Reverse mentoring is valuable to industry too – especially because GenZs are far more comfortable with computer-led AI and robotics. In fact, it’s often second nature to them.
Did you know that the number one search engine for Gen Z is TikTok? That is where they’re going for all their information and career advice these days. Hence, we work hard at Make UK to embrace TikTok together with our manufacturers to interact with young people.
SS: How do we encourage more women into the sector?
FMcG: One way is for men in the industry to update their attitudes towards women entering manufacturing professions. Female engineers get there on their own merits and need acknowledgement of this. In the past, women have often felt that they must go above and beyond to justify being there.
On the plus side, minorities who do survive in the industry are strong and resilient personalities! The girls who thrive are highly inspirational to other women. Relatable role models are key: ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’.
I have seen an increase in support and encouragement for and from women in the sector. Big companies are starting to adopt policies that allow for flexible working conditions, which is particularly useful for parents. They are aware the sector needs to adapt to support a workforce representative of society because, ultimately, it enhances business. Diversity gives rise to better solutions, especially in the digital age, where many processes in manufacturing are computer-led.
Minorities bring so many skills to the table and this needs to be appreciated. Men and women are different, and it is these differences that should be celebrated.
Through my work in raising the profile of careers in manufacturing, I hope that at least young people can make informed decisions, because by giving this industry a go, they will see the wealth of amazing and varied opportunities available to them.
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