The skills crisis in the engineering and manufacturing industries means that young people with the right skills and qualifications are in higher demand than ever before. Last month’s International Women in Engineering Day is a timely reminder of the huge potential and opportunities for young women and girls who are still significantly underrepresented in the sector.
According to Engineering UK, as of March 2022, women made up just 16.5% of all engineers in the country, that’s a 6% increase on 2010 but there is still a long way to go.
As more and more Leeds and West Yorkshire employers in the sector seek to tap into the full potential of the region’s workforce to attract and retain talent, many firms are making positive changes to ensure their workplaces are inclusive and to create flexible career structures.
So, there’s never been a better time for girls to consider careers in manufacturing and engineering, and there is a vast and diverse range of roles and career paths available.
We talked to three women working in the industry about how their career journeys brought them to their current jobs and why manufacturing and engineering can be fantastic career options for girls.
Eleanor is one of only two women working on the shop floor at industrial building products and sealants manufacturer, Sika, where she works as a mixer, developing the company’s industry-leading range of sealants.
“Working in a male dominated environment was a change of culture to begin with: there is a lot of banter but it is always good humoured and positive,” says Eleanor. “I have definitely gained in confidence the longer I have worked in manufacturing and I get on really well with my colleagues.
“I cancelled my gym membership as soon as I started working here,” jokes Eleanor, whose day-to-day role combines physical tasks and operating heavy machinery with highly skilled judgement and utilising advanced technology.
“There are physical elements to my job, which I really do enjoy,” she says, “and I think it came as a surprise to some of my male colleagues at first to see a woman in a role like this.”
Eleanor’s job as a ‘mixer’ involves creating Sika’s range of sealant products by mixing raw chemical ingredients in precise quantities to create the perfect composition each time, meeting the exacting standards of the firm’s quality control team.
Starting out in manufacturing as an apprentice at lithographic printing plates manufacturer Agfa, Eleanor joined Sika during the pandemic, when the high demand for building products – as people diverted cash from holidays to home improvements - meant that regular night shifts were required to increase supply.
Although women are in the minority on the shop floor at Sika, the male-female ratio across the company is around 50-50, with women carrying out many of the office-based and R&D roles.
“I massively enjoy working in this industry – the satisfaction of making visible progress and seeing a physical representation of the work you have done in the product you have just made is really satisfying. It’s also quite creative in many ways, and certainly not mundane. Working with dangerous chemicals means I have to be completely focused at all times.”
Eleanor is passionate about encouraging more girls to consider engineering and manufacturing as a career option. “If you’re a girl who enjoys things like design technology, maths and physics then you should definitely look carefully at engineering.
“It’s a career that enables you to work in an innovative and forward-thinking environment where the pay is very good and you can progress very quickly. It is a bit of a well-kept secret but the sector is both diverse and thriving in Leeds and West Yorkshire.”
She adds: “Skilled people are in short supply so if you show promise and have a good attitude then employers will do everything to keep you and enable you to develop. I think that as a woman you do stand out and you have the potential to be a role model for other girls and to show that this really is a great industry for women.”
“I was part-way through studying for my A levels in STEM subjects, and not really enjoying the desk-based academic side of the course. It was my grandma who told me about apprenticeships as a more practical way to learn and gain qualifications, as well as earning at the same time,” says Tyra.
Inspired by the prospect of a rewarding engineering career, Tyra was one of just ten successful candidates selected from 500 applicants by Sulzer for its four-year apprenticeship scheme. Seven years on and she is now production planning supervisor for the firm’s Leeds site, leading a seven-strong team and in charge of ensuring that Sulzer Leeds’ production schedule runs like clockwork.
“There has certainly been a culture change, just in the time that I’ve been at Sulzer,” she says. “The world is changing and engineering and manufacturing are both much more encouraging and welcoming to women as they realise the skills and different approaches they can bring.
“There is definitely a trend towards proactively recruiting women, and employers now have an attitude that women are great for business and for recruitment. In my view, women tend to be more creative, which can be a powerful driver for innovation and, of course, is something every employer in this industry is pursuing.
“This trend towards inclusivity and diversity has also seen increasing numbers of women moving into more senior roles, which also has an effect of changing the culture of an organisation.”
But Tyra says that when she started out on the shop floor there were some challenges to overcome. “I did get a few comments because there were very few women on the shop floor. However, I did very rapidly come to feel accepted because everyone is judged on merit and I soon realised that I was good at what I did.”
Tyra is also enthusiastic about the vast range of opportunities available for women in engineering. “As a woman, once you are inside the industry the options are endless and you can go anywhere. There are so many different careers available, from the shop floor to HR or marketing. So, for a woman who wants to start a family, if you are working on the shop floor for example, it’s very easy to move into a different role if you want to do something less physical.”
She adds: “It's definitely a career for life if you want it, and it’s both well paid and fulfilling. It’s fantastic that more girls are now able to see people like me and realise that manufacturing or engineering could be the ideal career for them and now it really isn’t just for boys.”
“I love the variety of being part of an engineering firm,” says Ingrid, who before she joined Brandon Medical worked as a HR professional for organisations spanning the NHS, charities and a football club. Joining Brandon Medical three years ago, she is passionate about opening up opportunities at the firm to attract the best, skilled employees.
A quarter of Brandon Medical’s 80-strong workforce is made up of women and Ingrid is focused on strengthening the diversity of the team. “We’ve built a workplace culture that is all about recruiting and retaining the best staff and that means looking after people’s wellbeing, encouraging diversity and equality and absolutely stamping out discrimination.
“We support all our staff, whether it’s with pregnancy, a bereavement, family life or the menopause and that kind of culture certainly makes us more attractive to women and definitely helps us to recruit as well as making people want to stay with us.”
She says that as a niche business, producing medical lighting and other key healthcare equipment, it is especially important that the specialist knowledge of the workforce is retained and that staff feel nurtured and valued.
“When people leave, there is a hidden cost of hiring and retraining new people that can be avoided by looking after colleagues well and making everyone feel supported so that they stay with you for a long time.”
Brandon Medical are passionate about attracting young people to the business – and doing all they can to ensure they progress in their careers and stay within the team. “We are constantly looking to recruit and retain young talent,” she says. “We know that skilled young people are the future of our business and we are seeing more girls than ever coming forward for jobs with us, which is great.
“There is still a bit of a misconception that engineering is a dirty job, however. Not only does our clinical setting mean that ours is an exceptionally clean working environment there are also a plethora of different roles that you can get involved with away from the shop floor, from design to quality control, health and safety and after-sales service. The opportunities, especially if you have skills in IT and technology, are vast and only going to get greater in future.”
She adds: “Certainly women do stand out because they are still underrepresented. And that’s one of the reasons why now is a fantastic time for girls to consider a career in engineering or manufacturing. You can get noticed and really shine in the industry, quickly building the foundations for a really stellar career.”