What does BREXIT mean to engineering and women engineers?

I have to be honest: no way did I really think that just over 50% of voters in the EU referendum would actually vote Leave. So when we were thinking about National Women in Engineering Day (NWED) on the 23rd of June and how to communicate our views and experiences of the day and indeed of the week around it, at no point did anyone say “so who will say something about Brexit?” 

WES was invited on several TV and radio shows, mostly for 30 second clips on engineering, and I volunteered to chat on Penny Smith’s show on TalkRadio on Saturday. Which I was looking forward too as I was going into the studio, and I have never been into a radio studio, and as part of the proceedings there would be a Michelin starred chef making brunch… my favourite combination: engineering and delicious food! But the producer called me on Friday to ask if they could ask about Brexit… I said yes, while in a state of shock over the Brexit vote, and had to start thinking very quickly. And today, a week after the referendum, there are a few chinks of light ahead.

Let me start with my conclusion: Brexit represents both a negative and positive for women engineers.

 If Brexit leads to our borders being closed down and labour movement being restricted, then the immediate effect will be a more desperate need for homegrown skills and talent in the UK. We have now the situation that less than 9% of engineering professionals are women and even fewer as those very highly paid technicians, with apprentices in engineering, construction and other technical areas at 4% and down to 1%. In addition 65% of engineering companies report that the lack of skills is making them lose work and not be able to carry out projects. Around 35-40% (depending on the survey) of all companies say STEM skills , particularly engineering and technology skills, are in short supply.

So if companies cannot recruit skills from the EU, they will definitely be looking at innovative ways to recruit from a wider pool of talent and encouraging many more women to enter the sector. That’s the good news!

But with closed borders and no trade agreements, engineering will suffer – we are 6th largest manufacturers in the world and those manufacturers largely trade internationally. So the predicted 2-10 years of setting new trade agreements may cause our engineering position in the world to drop. And many existing skills in the UK will leave, leading to even more companies reporting that they cannot complete projects, create products and sell services, and in turn that will lead to a further downturn and lower recruitment. There are some indicators already that this is happening as some corporates have reported putting decisions on investments and recuitment on hold. Fortunately, Nick Boles, the Minister for Skills, has in the past day said that we should assume that the apprenticeship levy scheme will go ahead as planned, after it must be said, a tense week of nervousness in the training sector.

And to be honest, I agree with Daniel Hannan, one of the Leave campaigners, when he said on the morning of the 24th June that of course there will be continued free flow of labour. The UK cannot afford to turn away skills and labour; industry needs the current freedoms - industry is likely to protest should they not be able to recruit, as they do from a global labour market. This is true not just the global corporates, but the many niche specialist companies. Specialist technical skills are part of a global market, where the few with those skills move according to where they are required. So for those specialist engineering industries, particularly very high tech, business might very well be business-as-usual.

But for engineers – well engineers have always been travellers. Specialists are called upon by companies to work on projects in all corners of the globe – whether that is  what better than to become one of the small group of people who travel the world, welcomed everywhere. Engineers and skilled trades and specialist technicians are absolutely in short supply in the world: some of our key large infrastructure projects were delayed by mining and tunneling engineers being attracted by work on the other side of the world, in Australia. It was always thus.

The UK is at the bottom of the league when it comes to women in engineering – other countries have much higher proportions, so increased need for travel to keep trading going can only mean women have better opportunities. So if you want your borders kept open, move into and stay in engineering. 

So I repeat, Brexit represents both a negative and positive for women engineers.

The Women’s Engineering Society has just launched a Young Members Board, and what is clear from the EU referendum results is that the young have a very different view of the world. To ensure that WES remains relevant, it is vital that we listen to the voice of young members. Our wish is that the YMB of today become the WES Council of the future, leading WES to make a real difference to equality and inclusivity.

Oh, and my radio interview? I had my moment of fame: two minutes taking to Jake Yapp on TalkRadio over a crackly phoneline on a Sunday morning on a show that was overrunning, and NO Michelin starred brunch. Still it ws nice to be asked and nice to be listened to - thanks Jake and TalkRadio!

Dr Sarah Peers, WES VicePresident