Meet Amy Barr, Work Based Learning Manager at the Colchester Institute

Amy Barr

Amy Barr, is the Work Based Learning Manager for Engineering and Construction at the Colchester Institute.Prior to her career in Further Education (FE) teaching, Amy specialised as a Quality Engineer in the automotive sector.

As a female engineer working in a male dominated industry, Amy wanted to help create a more diverse engineering workforce by inspiring the next generation of workers to enter the sector – providing a valuable female role model for learners to look up to.

After volunteering part time as a teaching assistant at a local college, Amy fell in love with sharing her skills through teaching in FE. Now, six years later, she is supporting the Department for Education’s ‘Teach in Further Education’ campaign, which calls on more industry professionals to share their skills through teaching in FE. Amy believes industry professionals have an important role to play in ensuring a strong pipeline of diverse talent enters the engineering industry to further safeguard the future of the sector.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I decided to go into engineering because I loved Physics at school and was always interested in making things work. My dad was an engineer, so I was often in the garage helping him fix things. My dad inspired me and made me aware of the opportunities the engineering sector had to offer. At the age of 16 I was delighted to secure an apprenticeship at Delphi Diesel Systems and later specialised as a Quality Engineer in the automotive sector.

After volunteering at my local college part time, I realised the impact I could make in the classroom with my industry experience and decided to become an Engineering FE teacher. I love using my practical skills in the classroom; I am responsible for eight different subjects in both electrical and mechanical engineering and teach a wide range of different students aged 16 to 54. I also have a role as the Work Based Learning Manager, where I manage the engineering and construction syllabus, as well as the strategic aspects of the FE teaching year.

Outside of teaching, I love motorbikes and steam engine rallies and I’m also an avid baker. Icing a cake is literally the same as welding a joint together – both take precision and a steady hand.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I never thought I would become a FE teacher as I really enjoyed working in the engineering sector. I wanted to build up my experience in the sector and qualify, so I completed my engineering studies alongside working full time in industry. This combination of learning on the job ultimately prepared me really well for teaching in FE, as there are opportunities to train and gain your teaching qualifications whilst you earn.

Part-time and flexible contracts are readily available which means that you can continue to work part-time in industry whilst also being an FE teacher and change lives without changing your career. Teaching in FE alongside your current role works really well for the engineering sector as many engineering contracts are for fixed periods, so you can combine your industry work with the stability of part time FE teaching. That’s what makes FE teaching a great option for industry professionals looking to do something different alongside the ‘day job’.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

It can be challenging being a woman in a male dominated sector. A recent report by Engineering UK states that women make up just 14.5% of all engineers in the UK. These statistics make it clear we still have a long way to go to achieving a gender balance in the sector. Early on in my career, I faced some colleagues who had low expectations of my ability and knowledge, due to my gender. However, I have also experienced excellent support from many engineers and mentors working in the industry, support that was fundamental to my development. Now, as an FE teacher, I aim to inspire more female engineers to follow in my footsteps and give them practical, experience-led teaching so that they can shape the sector going forward. I’m proud to be a female role model to future engineers.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

As a former apprentice myself, I am very proud to work with and support apprentices as they enter the working world. No career achievement can beat coaching students to get to their next step, whether that’s an apprenticeship or going to university. One of my students is now a mentor to new apprentices and it’s so lovely because he’s come full circle. I get a real buzz out of helping the students to get jobs and it’s exciting to see what they go on to do with their new qualification.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

I had an excellent female science teacher in school who was a great role model for women in STEM. When I went to college, I had some great Further Education teachers too who taught me Engineering Design and Properties and Applications of Engineering Materials. One of my FE teachers in particular had real life industry experience that he brought to the classroom and made our lessons really engaging. My teacher was really calm, approachable and he showed me the crossover between teaching and industry, as he worked as a CAD designer during the holidays.

In the last year of my HNC in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Suffolk, I helped my peers with CAD design and that’s when I realised I had a flare for skills sharing.  Role models are so important for anyone when they are learning their trade – whatever the industry, people need to be able to see ‘people like them’ achieving success in their chosen field. Teaching in FE offers industry professionals a great opportunity to be that role model figure for students.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in engineering and wider STEM sector?

Anyone who is determined and enjoys problem solving can work in the STEM sector. I have always loved problem solving and my determination in both my professional career and my personal life has helped me succeed both as an engineer and as an FE teacher. I also believe you need to be open to new ideas. There is always new technology that re-writes the conventional rule-book and you have to be open to accept that change. Finally, being respectful to others and a great sense of humour goes a long way both with colleagues and the students. I try and instil in my students how to be respectful to your peers so that down the line they are more successful and caring engineers.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in STEM, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

One of the biggest barriers faced by women working in STEM can be overcoming stereotypes. There is still a gender gap in engineering and we need to see more women in the field. Brilliant FE teachers play one key role in inspiring the next generation of female engineers and women in STEM. Diversity of people in the workforce leads to diversity of ideas that push forwards innovation in the sector. For the next generation of engineers to be inclusive, empathetic, diverse and non-judgemental as a workforce – they need role models

How can we encourage more young people to study STEM subjects including engineering?

We can inspire more young people, and especially young women, into STEM by inspiring a more diverse group of people to teach. Training and hiring a more diverse pool of teachers will feed directly into the make-up of the classroom and the aspirations of its students.

Industry professionals often don’t realise that their real life experience is highly valued in FE teaching and you don’t even need to have any previous teaching experience because you can obtain teaching qualifications while training on the job. Bringing your real-life experience to practical elements of the course will also be engaging to your students and make the course more memorable and exciting for them too.

What do you think companies can do to support the progress of the careers of women working in STEM?

There is a multitude of practical and company-led initiatives that can help women progress in their STEM career. There are already some great schemes afoot – and this must increase – like creating inclusive training and mentoring opportunities or creating ongoing professional networks for women at colleges and universities. Similarly, celebrations like an annual “bring your daughter to work day” for employees can help with this visual representation, as many female engineers, myself included, became aware of the profession through family or friends working in the sector. Small, incremental changes like this is where the real difference is made, and will not only make the industry a kinder, more accepting place to work but a more impactful one. Encouraging employers to support their staff if they are interested in teaching in FE can help employee’s professional and personal development. The message is clear to me; Teach in FE and be part of the difference you want to see.