Female engineer, hidden workforce, women in engineering

Article by Natalie Desty, Director of STEM Returners and Scott Aitken, Managing Director at Binnies UK

Despite efforts to close a skills shortage across STEM – there are still not enough of us. Sadly, this this skills gap extends across multiple sectors.

For example, a 2019 report, said the water industry is struggling to fill more than 35% of its skilled roles (compared to a national average of 23%), and more than a fifth of its skilled workforce is expected to retire within a decade. Estimations are that the UK water industry will need to fill a staggering 221,000 roles by 2028.

Similarly, the Royal Academy of Engineering has estimated that UK engineering employers need to recruit 182,000 engineers annually to keep up with demand and suggested that firms need to double its recruitment of graduates and apprentices to meet the shortfall.

We also know that there is a distinct lack of diversity and inclusion across STEM. Currently, just only one-in-ten engineers are female and minority ethnic engineers make up just nine percent of the workforce, despite making up 27% of graduates.

To recruit thousands of new people every year to fill these roles, while improving diversity is a challenge – but there is a hidden workforce who could help solve these issues.

Thousands of engineering and STEM professionals who have had a career break are often overlooked. These talented, educated and dedicated people find it incredibly difficult to get a job and are the victims of outdated recruitment methods that prevent them from getting an interview, let alone being offered the role.

In STEM Returners’ annual survey – The STEM Returners Index – 66% of STEM professionals on a career break said they are finding the process of attempting to return to work either difficult or very difficult and that nearly half (46%) of participants said they felt bias because of a lack of recent experience.

Sadly, gender is also perceived as a barrier. Nearly a third (29%) of women in the survey said they feel they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to their gender compared to 7% of men, and despite 39% of females wanting to return to work due to children now being of school age (vs 8% of males), 40% of females still feel childcare responsibilities are a barrier to returning due to lack of flexibility offered by employers.

Binnies has joined the STEM Returners programme, in order to make a tangible difference and increase return rates of highly skilled talented people – particularly women and ethnic minority groups – back into the industry. In this way they can make and bring back significant talent that is very much needed to meet skills shortages.

But welcoming back mid-career professionals requires challenging the unconscious bias of the hiring community and recruitment supply chain, as well as changing internal culture to provide a more inclusive environment. Rachel Pether, Director of Binnies’ Water Utilities Consultancy business is one example of a business leader championing diversity, increasing the percentage of women in her team since 2020 from 28% to 38%, Increasing the visibility of female leaders provides relatable role models for our employees to aspire to.

There is a perception that a career break automatically leads to a deterioration of skills. But the reality is, that many people on a career break keep themselves up to date with their industry, are able to refresh their skills easily when back in work and have developed new transferable skills that would actually benefit their employers.

At Binnies, we have taken part in programmes that help transition people back into the workplace. We have benefited hugely by recognising transferrable skills and identifying talent out of the Water industry such as Energy, Transportation and Manufacturing. By being part of STEM Returners, we are meeting the skills shortage and importantly doing this in a very supportive way such that our returners feel valued, engaged and included.

Being inclusive is the right thing to do, and we all have a role to play in this. We all need to do more to improve inclusion and diversity across the STEM sector and it starts by looking inward at our own recruitment processes and challenging outdated practices. Binnies are also committed to investing in and developing the ‘next generation’. As such, Binnies commits to a minimum of 50% women within their annual intake of graduates, STEM leaders need to do more help their own organisations become more inclusive and actively seek out diversity, which is proven to increase business success. By updating traditional standardised recruitment methods that search for the ‘unicorn’ candidate and challenging unconscious biases, the UK engineering sector could potentially become the example for others to follow in the search for diversity and inclusion.