Comment: Job certainty, career aspirations and Covid-19

Engineering UK chief executive Dr Hilary Leevers reflects on the impact that the pandemic has had on young peoples’ career aspirations

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant effect on all aspects of life from individual wellbeing to public health and the economy. Amid talk of the deepest recession the UK has seen for 300 years, students of all ages have had their education, training and exams disrupted and more recently, the grading and communication of their results thrown into complete disarray. There is no doubt that analysis of what all this means for individuals, the education system and beyond will continue for months to come and for now I’d like to congratulate students for all they’ve achieved, together with the teachers and parents who have supported them during the most unsettling and challenging of times.

With schools across the UK planning to re-open fully for the autumn term over the next few weeks, many students are thinking about their career and subject options and the findings from our new research ‘Young people and Covid-19’ have revealed that educational and career aspirations have already been affected by the pandemic. The survey, conducted with 1,100 11 to 19 year olds in June and July, highlighted concerns about future education and job opportunities, a shift in what is important to them in their future career choices and some intensifying of existing gender differences in STEM career aspirations.

With schools across the UK about to reopen, many young people are thinking about their career options. Image: Shopping King Louie via stock.adobe.com

Young people said that the pandemic has constrained and changed their career choices – 30% said the careers they could do have changed and 22% said what they wanted to do as a career has changed – 44% said that ‘having a job that you can be certain you can keep’ had become more important, as had ‘availability of jobs’ (41%). A striking, 6 out of 10 (62%) felt that finding a job in the future would be more difficult, and 5 out of 10 (51%) 15 to 19-year olds said going to university would be more difficult, 4 out of 10 (41%) said the same of becoming an apprentice.

That children as young as 11 are concerned about their ongoing education and careers underlines the extent of the impact of the pandemic on young people but it is a pragmatic response. They will need to be thoughtful and realistic in planning their careers. And while they are paying due attention to the need for job security and availability, this is balanced by an increased desire to benefit people and society, with around a third indicating that the pandemic has made ‘having a positive impact on society’, ‘helping people’, and ‘ethics and social responsibility’ more important when considering career choices.

At a time of real uncertainty about their futures, engineering can give young people the opportunities they need and want – careers with enormous societal value critical to responding to global challenges

It is encouraging that the pandemic has resulted in young people being more interested in a career in science, technology, engineering and healthcare and that they recognise the importance of the roles engineers play in efforts to combat the pandemic, including developing ventilators, turning exhibition centres into hospitals and vaccine development. But we need to translate this insight into career aspiration. Interest in engineering careers continues to lag behind science and technology, despite the positive and resonant story we can tell.

Worryingly, the results suggest that existing gender differences in career aspirations are deepening, with a higher proportion of female than male respondents saying they would be more likely to work in healthcare because of the pandemic (29% v 18%) and a higher proportion of male than female respondents saying they’d be more likely to work in engineering (17% v 12%) or technology (23% v 18%).

At a time of real uncertainty about their futures, engineering can give young people the opportunities they need and want – careers with enormous societal value critical to responding to global challenges like achieving Net Zero and responding to the pandemic. They are also jobs that are likely to be secure in comparison to many other sectors, not least because of the government’s ongoing commitment to investing in the Industrial Strategy, new infrastructure projects and R&D. It’s so important that we ensure that these opportunities are visible to young people. As schools re-open their doors for the new academic year, the engineering community needs to work together to ensure we target STEM outreach and work experience to the schools and students that need it most, including those who are under-represented in the STEM and engineering workforce and those who are most affected by the pandemic.

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