Engineering students

What barriers do BAME students face starting an engineering career?

Guest Post: Ash Kala

There is a significant underrepresentation of people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnicities (BAME) backgrounds in engineering, who comprise an estimated 7.8% of the workforce [1]. The fact is, graduates from BAME backgrounds are between 5% and 15% less likely to become employed compared to graduates from other backgrounds [2].

Why do graduates from BAME backgrounds ultimately struggle to find employment in engineering?

The problem is complex, but can be partly traced back to one key root cause: people from BAME backgrounds are overrepresented in lower-income regions across the country. The UK Government’s statistics on the 10% most deprived neighbourhoods in the country, sorted by ethnicity, reveal that Asian and Black ethnic minorities create the bulk of the population in the most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK, whilst people from White British backgrounds make up only 8.6% of the population in these areas [3].  The geographical location of these groups can affect the opportunities presented to their residents for several reasons.

For one, criminality is strongly correlated with low-average household income in an area. This can affect young people growing up, who may lack positive role models in their environments. Certain music genres, specifically in England, are particularly popular geographically and with young people from BAME backgrounds, such as those dubbed as Drill/Grime. UK Drill [4] reflects on the cultural importance of this. “Music remains a valuable means of self-expression and, perhaps, financial reward for black Londoners who are among the poorest ethnic groups in the city, with 35% classed as low-paid.” In an interview, the popular rapper Abra Cadabra sets the scene even further. “When the youth see man at Wireless festival, hear man on the radio, and see man making money out of this, it inspires them.”

Stereotypes and a lack of role models

Young people can feel a strong influence from their role models, and many will aspire to follow in their footsteps on a path towards success, fame, and out of deprivation. This particular path, however, can sometimes be paved with notorious cultural features and several degrees of antisocial behaviours. The lyrics of many of these rappers’ repertoires, including Abra Cadabra’s, are laden with references to drug culture, gang violence and crime as the route from “rags to riches”. How are we to expect young people to not be violence-numbed if many of their close role models are constantly talking about it?

In the words of Catherine West, Labour MP, “young people in disadvantaged areas, who are suffering as a result of cuts to their schools and youth services, understandably feel disillusioned and as though they’ve been abandoned. When disillusion occurs, crime – particularly youth crime – goes up” [5]. Educational disillusionment is one of the main threats to BAME youths, as it is precisely education, achieving higher qualifications and entering high-paid labour sectors that allow them to escape poverty.

Educational solutions to tackle stereotypes

A possible solution to the issue could start by creating a fund destined to children ‘at risk of school exclusion’ (as proposed by MPs like Catherine West), which can support young people to stay in education and prevent them from falling into the criminal system. Beyond driving change in their communities, this will help defeat entrenched stereotypes around deprivation, ethnicity and criminality.

Students living in deprived neighbours attend schools that may struggle in supporting them. The Independent bluntly states this issue: “schools in deprived areas are becoming “dumping grounds” for struggling children – with headteachers sending pupils who behave badly to poorly performing institutions” [6]. This is detrimental to students in these localities, with BAME taking the impact of the consequences via a hindered educational performance that ultimately leads to lower grading in qualifications throughout the educational ladder. Moreover, BAME students are less likely to have work experience, and are less confident in their technical skills [7], furthering the educational gap between British minority and white British students. As WES perfectly summarises it: “BME graduates are less likely to gain first-class or upper second-class degrees”.

Alternative education via apprenticeships

For this reason, higher education in a traditional sense might not be the best solution for every young person aspiring to enter the industry. Resources like the Apprenticeship Levy should be deployed to cater to apprenticeship schemes that specifically target BAME students, starting from as young as Year 10 in England and Wales (S4 in Scotland or Sixth Form in Northern Ireland). A recent success story outside of engineering can be found in PwC’s graduate apprenticeship. Its objective – to help diversity strands access the industry – provide training that has career-long use, and receive a salary whilst doing so. What’s even more, “at the end of the programme, they will come away with a BSc degree in Computer Science, Data Science or Software Engineering and a job at PwC if they meet performance criteria” [8]. Increasing diversity and training a high-skill workforce can work hand in hand as solutions to deliver long-term productivity. These new educational partnerships also allow businesses to recruit talent directly, giving recruits both an early introduction to company culture, procedures – and further down the line – helping increase employee retention.

Diversity can solve the engineering candidate shortage

Engineering employers are expecting to find a shortage of candidates in the near future [9]. Hidden in this problem lies the invaluable opportunity to expand both the magnitude and the diversity of the talent pool currently being headhunted, by recommending in-house recruiting targets diversity strands. A recent initiative from the UK Government, the Summer Diversity Internship Programme [10], allows candidates from diverse backgrounds to get a first-hand experience in the Civil Service. The programme has been an enormous success and given several awards, but more importantly, helps feed candidates through the Civil Service Fast Stream and their future career.

The story does not simplify either to the lower echelons of the talent pipeline. Having no BAME engineers in higher managerial roles prevents companies from truly adding innovative perspectives that can positively impact their businesses. Managers operate in global markets and they require creative strategies to make companies thrive. Data from McKinsey reveals that diversity unequivocally drives financial performance. As [11] states, “companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have financial returns that were above their national industry median” [1].  Increasing diversity brings success to businesses.

The power of reverse mentoring

Reverse mentoring programmes between BAME Engineers and managers are a patch that could also drive real change in the industry. The UK Government has already implemented this procedure, which allows the growth of a symbiotically beneficial relationship for both the BAME employee and their manager [12]. Godfrey Atuahene Junior (Diversity and Inclusion Lead in the Faith and Minority Ethnic Network) discloses that “it has eliminated the fear of the unknown and increased my confidence and empowerment in communicating with senior leaders and stakeholders.” Furthermore, in Mr Atuahene words, this allows BAME employees to feel heard, knowing their “contribution to the discussion is valued by senior leaders in highlighting diversity and inclusion points.”  

Sarah Harrison MBE, Director General, Corporate Services for Department for Business summarises what lies at the heart of this. “Our partnership coincided with the beginning of a conversation in the department about race, and Godfrey has helped me see things through his eyes and his personal experience.” She then continues to say, “hearing Godfrey’s story has helped to improve my own self-awareness, and we need to look for more ways for stories like Godfrey’s to be shared.” Reverse mentoring allows managers to hear, understand and deploy strategies with people in mind, regardless of their backgrounds, and helps BAME employees to enter the trust networks that power professional development and career progression.

Conclusion

Tackling the problem at its roots, the engineering industry will be able to encourage BAME students into the profession, create long-term job prospects for young people, and allow those who have grown up in deprived neighbourhoods a route out of poverty. All this whilst driving wider company performance, profits and productivity.


Bibliography

[1] Royal Academy of Engineering, “Celebrating leading minority ethnic engineers,” 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.raeng.org.uk/diversity-in-engineering/diversity-and-inclusion-at-the-academy/celebrating-leading-ethnic-minorities-in-engineer. [Accessed 02 2020]. 
[2] The Guardian, “Revealed: how ethnic minority graduates lose out on jobs,” [Online]. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/jan/30/ethnic-minority-graduates-earn-less-struggle-to-build-careers. 
[3] UK Government Website, “People living in deprived neighbourhoods,” [Online]. Available: https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/uk-population-by-ethnicity/demographics/people-living-in-deprived-neighbourhoods/latest. 
[4] The Guardian, “Is UK drill music really behind London’s wave of violent crime?,” [Online]. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/apr/09/uk-drill-music-london-wave-violent-crime. 
[5] The Guardian, “Rising youth crime reflects wider societal problems,” [Online]. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/apr/03/rising-youth-reflects-wider-societal-problems. 
[6] E. Busby, “Schools in deprived areas become ‘dumping grounds’ for struggling children, Ofsted report suggests,” [Online]. Available: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/ofsted-report-underperforming-schools-pupils-dumping-ground-deprived-areas-research-a9274091.html. 
[7] WES, “Diversity in Engineering,” [Online]. Available: https://www.wes.org.uk/sites/default/files/u82/Diversity%20in%20Engineering%20Data%20Su mmary%20FINAL.pdf. 
[8] PwC, “Next generation: PwC tech degree apprenticeships launched,” [Online]. Available: https://www.pwc.co.uk/who-we-are/annual-report/annual-report-2018/stories/tech-degree-apprenticeships-launched.html. 
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