Time to try something new

Source: RTM Jun/Jul 2017

Carolyn Griffiths, the recently-appointed president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), talks to RTM about what she’d like to achieve during her year in office.

Many people in the rail industry will know Carolyn Griffiths for her role in establishing and managing the Rail Accident Investigation Branch. In what has been a varied career, Griffiths has taken on numerous roles in the UK and overseas since starting out on the shop floor as a trainee, including the role of senior maintenance engineer for the Mass Rapid Transit in Singapore, the engineering director at South Yorkshire Supertram, as senior vice president for Adtranz in Berlin and now a non-executive director at Irish Rail. 

But in her new role as the 132nd president of IMechE, there are a number of challenges that Griffiths would like to tackle including education, the gender skills gap, employment and the related issue of productivity. 

Recognising that some of these big-ticket items are challenges that haven’t been overcome in decades, Griffiths said she wanted to explore with the other engineering institutions whether there was a new organisational framework that would  at least “facilitate new conversations and negotiations” to open the door to change. 

She reflected that it has been known since the 1960s that the number of people entering the engineering profession has been declining. During her presidential address, Griffiths noted that the engineering sector accounts for 20% of the UK’s current Gross Added Value and 48% of our exports. 

“The turnover of UK’s engineering enterprises is £1.2 trillion, i.e. 25% of the UK’s total turnover,” she said. “For every new job that is created in engineering there are two further jobs created elsewhere in the UK in reaction.” 

However, Griffiths noted that it is doubtful the government will ever make the radical changes to the school curriculum to make it STEM-focused to encourage the next generation of engineers. 

“This would be unpopular with large parts of the education system, costly, highly disruptive and would probably be met with resistance from almost all other disciplines,” said Griffiths. 

Maybe an alternative approach would be to embed science and engineering throughout the curriculum, instead of in one or two niche areas, she argued, so a greater proportion of students are given access to the ‘manufactured’ world and the related creativity and problem solving. It is definitely a conversation worth having. 

Gender diversity 

Having been the first woman in all nine of her jobs throughout her illustrious rail career, Griffiths stated that the UK is still the worst-performing country in Europe for gender diversity in engineering. “Only 8% of engineers are women, and in my own industry, its only 4%,” she said. 

One barrier, she noted, is that of lone women studying physics at A-level. Griffiths quoted from a 2012 study by the Institute of Physics which revealed that in 49% of UK co-educational state schools, no female students chose to study A-level physics. But as this qualification is regarded by many employers and higher education establishments as a key requirement for a career in engineering, it means that closing the gender gap is made difficult. 

But in 2006, an engineering department in University College London changed its entry requirements, no longer asking for physics A-level. About 10% of the students accepted on to courses did not have maths or physics A-levels. However, the university maintains these students have done as well as, if not better than, their peers. At the start, 21% of the department were women. Today this has increased to 29%, in part due to the change in intake requirements. Similarly, the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology, which will offer a four-year BEng degree, does not require A-level physics and reports that 25% of its applicants are women. 

“Until there is more of a representative number of women in the industry, there are specific measures that need to be engaged to create a more inclusive culture to attract and retain female engineers, and the institutions can be very influential in jointly promoting these,” said Griffiths. Even in the most well-intentioned organisations, where there is a pronounced difference in numbers of men and women, the culture will inevitably be different and sometimes challenging for the minority group. 

Asked why the engineering profession has been resistant to change, she told us one reason is that although there have been quite a number of  ‘calls to action’,  there has been limited success (with some encouraging exceptions) in harnessing the efforts of the various institutions on common  initiatives.  

Therefore, during her tenure, she has asked whether the institutions can together identify an organisational framework to help find areas for collaboration, and to facilitate the negotiations which will recognise the motivations and rewards for those involved. 

Such a framework, noted Griffiths, can retain the current institution structures for as long as they want, and the level of collaboration may differ between organisations. 

“My plea was, can we at least talk about this?” she said. “Let’s see if we can move this agenda. We all want the same things to change, so there must be a way.” 

While Griffiths recognises there are limits to what can be achieved in a year, the length of her tenure as president, she said: “I’m  hoping we  can during this year explore the possibility of an organisational framework that better helps us work together and that  we  find more traction in certain cross  institution activity.”




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