Nicole and Gabriella with Darina Shopova, engineering

Why we shouldn't underestimate the value mentorship schemes offer to female engineers

Nicole and Gabriella with Darina Shopova, engineering

By Darina Shopova, design engineer at Envair Technology

There is no doubt that the number of women pursuing careers in engineering in the UK is on the rise. A recent survey by EngineeringUK found that there are now 936,000 women employed in the industry – which is almost two thirds more than we had in 2010.

While this is a significant increase, it only represents 16.5% of the total engineering workforce. There is still a lot to do if we want to redress that imbalance. And this is why Envair Technology took part in this year’s Women’s Engineering Society’s work shadowing scheme.

The initiative gives young women access to real working environments and an opportunity to get advice from experienced engineers about starting their career journey.

Entering the industry

I’m one of those engineers, and I know first-hand how hard it can be for women to forge a career in engineering without schemes such as this. I studied civil engineering in my native Bulgaria and gained a degree from the Technical University of Varna. But after relocating to the UK with my family, I found my English was not developed enough to take on a technical engineering role.

I worked in administration for a long time following that move but my dream of working in engineering never left me. So, in my forties, I took the decision to go back to college and qualify as a mechanical engineer. This was not an easy option. Completing the course required me to juggle family commitments, accept a pay cut and take out a loan to pay for fees.

It crossed my mind on more than one occasion that I should just give up on the idea. That was until I landed a place on an apprenticeship scheme in advanced manufacturing engineering. As it turned out, I was probably as old as many of my classmates’ parents, and one of only three women on the scheme – but it was the break I needed. And, ultimately, it resulted in me gaining my job in design engineering here at Envair Technology.

Opening doors

That’s why I was so keen to get involved in this work shadowing programme. If it can open a door that helps other women enter the industry, I want to get on board.

Two female students recently completed work shadowing days with us at Envair Technology: Nicole, an A-level student in Year 12, and Gabriella, who is an undergraduate in biochemistry at the University of Birmingham. The programme we provided gave them an opportunity to work on a project to create a mobile phone holder, from concept through to finished product.

This project gave Nicole and Gabriella insight into the stages a new product goes through before it is brought to life. They were involved in initial research, using industry software to design 3D models and heading to the shop floor to watch their prototypes undergo laser cutting and polishing.

The practical approach seemed to have the desired impact. Gabriella explained to me that while she has previously done work experience in large companies, she hadn’t been given a project like this before and it really helped. As she said to me: “We had the chance to do hands-on work and we learned so much that will be relevant to our future careers.”

Inspiring the next generation

While the introduction to cutting-edge tools was great for them, I think they will have gained the most valuable insight from seeing how our teams come together to achieve a common goal. That’s not something you can pick up from a textbook.

Nicole told me that she had spoken to one of our engineers, who was enthusiastically talking about a new solution we are working on that will be used to manufacture chemotherapy drugs that will ultimately treat cancer. You could tell how much this inspired her.

She went as far as to say that she had only really considered working in the automotive or aerospace sectors previously, but she was now looking at the pharmaceutical industry. As she explained: “You can impact so many lives with these solutions.”

Helping women be aspirational

Nicole believes there is still a lack of awareness among school-aged girls about the opportunities that exist in engineering. She said: “It’s only through mentorships like this one that you get to meet people and hear their experiences.”

It made me reflect on how beneficial it was for me to get a place on an apprenticeship scheme. There were times before that where I nearly gave up on my aspirations, but then I was fortunate. It’s clear we need to continue to encourage women to pursue their interests and not give up on technology and engineering. But they do need help.

There are still too few women in the industry for the next generation to turn to for inspiration. That’s why mentorship schemes are crucial for young women like Nicole and Gabriella – they are a much needed boost to the future engineering workforce in the UK.