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Train sets to training: Getting girls into construction

It is not news to anyone in the construction industry that this country has a shortage of engineers and technicians.

We simply do not train or encourage enough young people into science or the technical professions. Nor is it news that post-Brexit it may become harder to make up the numbers from overseas.

What then can we do about it?

I’m willing to bet there isn’t a single politician in any party who thinks that training more youngsters in science, technology, engineering and maths is a bad idea. We are not short of well-meaning exhortations. What we lack are practical, long-term solutions.

Three and up

If we are to solve our skills shortage we need to start interesting children in science and engineering at a young age. When I say young, I mean very young – three isn’t too old. And when I say children I mean particularly girls.

Women only make up 10 per cent of the engineering workforce. So if we can encourage girls to study STEM subjects in anything like the numbers boys already do, we will go a long way to reducing our skills deficit.

“The problem is cultural rather than academic – girls switch off because engineering and machines are presented as masculine”

At London Transport Museum, the youngest girls are as captivated by trains and buses and gears and gadgets as boys.

But we notice a sharp fall in girls’ interest soon afterwards – as early as five or six, even though all the evidence suggests girls do just as well – if not better – than boys in maths and science at school.

The problem is cultural rather than academic – girls switch off because engineering and machines are presented as masculine and things that boys typically enjoy. That is why we have launched our Enjoyment to Employment initiative, which aims to develop children’s natural love of the mechanical into a long-term passion.

They get to play with trains, buses and engines, to role-play and to imagine themselves working as technicians and engineers. And once we have them interested we aim to keep them interested – the programme has interventions designed for young people up to the age of 25.

Construction coalition

Crucially, the way we present the exhibits and the language we use is gender-neutral. We also hold workshops for teachers to encourage them to do the same.

Our aim is to build an industry coalition, with partners like Telent and Siemens, working through the museum to foster in youngsters a love of engineering. But we need more companies to become involved.

In short, when it comes to plugging our skills gap, the earlier we hook children the better. And the future for industry will look that little bit brighter if we can persuade one young girl at Christmas to put aside her Frozen princess for a train set.

Sam Mullins is director of the London Transport Museum

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