The drive to get more women to take up roles in engineering

By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 20 Dec 2017

Is engineering starting to shake its perception as a male-dominated profession? Parliamentary Correspondent Patrick Daly spoke to those in the Humber’s industries to find out.

The Prime Minister says there are still “boy and girl jobs” in the May household – but in the big world of industry, those types of gender distinctions are changing.

Female apprentices and young engineers from Phillips 66, the American energy company which runs the Humber refinery in South Killingholme, were down in Westminster earlier this month to tell MPs about their experience of breaking into the industry.

Zoe Sparling recently graduated to become a staff member at the refinery after completing her four-year apprenticeship with Phillips 66. She was encouraged to take up an apprenticeship when her school, Sir John Nelthorpe School in Brigg, had a visit from the WhyNotChemEng industry group to encourage young people to think about an engineering career.

“I came into it because I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was in school,” said the 23-year-old. But that visit inspired me to go into the industry after my A-levels and I’ve loved it ever since.”

NEXT GENERATION: Young apprentices from the oil refinery industry giving evidence to MPs on their experiences.

Zoe, who hails from Barton, now has a full-time position as a process control specialist on the refinery, meaning it is her job to ensure the technical equipment measuring the refinery’s operation are working correctly.

England has six oil refineries in total – and a third of those are situated in South Killingholme, with Lindsey Oil Refinery also based on the south bank of the Humber. For that reason, North East Lincolnshire has pulling power for those wanting a career in engineering.

Jennifer Whitehead is from Cheshire but moved to Hessle after graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering from Manchester University.

Read more: £40m plan could see end-of-life tyre reprocessor make tracks to the South Bank

The 26-year-old said she saw the industry as offering a “fun” career but admitted that for many of her peers, it was “not a popular choice”. But Jennifer says the industry is far more accessible than it may have been in the past. “I don’t think there are physical barriers for women wanting to get into mechanical engineering,” she said.

“It is just about getting that initial interest and wanting to do it. There are some who think it is a male-dominated industry but I would say that has improved.

“I have never experienced anything that questions my competence,” said the mechanical engineer, whose job it is to ensure the physical components in the plant are operating properly.

Zoe and Jennifer were in Westminster on December 6 to offer advice to the all-party MPs group on the UK oil refining sector about how to encourage more young people into the sector, having been invited to partake by chair Martin Vickers.

The Cleethorpes MP said he knew the industry had been purposefully trying to diversify in recent years.

“I know Phillips 66 have been keen to broaden their range of recruits – they recognise that there have been barriers in the past but they also recognise that society is changing,” said the Conservative MP.

“Previously, if a girl leaving school said to their parents they wanted to work as an engineer, they’d probably have thought, ‘Why does she want to go and work on an oil refinery?’

“But the industry has changed and it is a very different working environment on an oil refinery now compared to how it was in the 1960s for example.

“I remember visiting the Lindsey refinery a few years ago and being told that the canteen area I was stood in would have been filled with smoke and serving greasy spoon-style food, but now it was serving healthy option meals.”

Mr Vickers has written to Skills Minister Anne Milton calling for career guidance to start placing more emphasis on encouraging school leavers to take up “practical and vocational” careers, rather than steering them towards university.

Phillips 66 – which already employs more than double the national average (23 per cent) for female staff – has actively sought to get more women and girls into engineering.

Their engineers visit dozens of schools each year to promote careers and the skills needed to access them. In fact, it was Delyth Williams, a lead process engineer at the refinery, who enticed Zoe to turn her attention to working in the industry after sixth form.

There are mentoring programmes in place with Humber University Technical College (UTC) and Franklin Sixth Form, while 200 students are invited every year to the site in order to promote how the subjects they learn every day “are used daily in industries like ours on their doorstep”, said a spokeswoman.

Read more: Inward investor Semco’s delight at early invitation

The company also organise a lunch celebrating women in engineering in the region, held at the Humber UTC. Their female apprentices and female students from the Humber and Lincoln UTCs are invited to meet Phillips 66 early career engineers during the afternoon – Nicky Morgan MP, the ex-education secretary, was the key note speaker last year to offer her perspective as a woman in politics.

The oil refinery sector is not the only one in the Humber taking gender balance seriously – the burgeoning offshore wind industry wants to employ more local people and have put in place measures to ensure a healthy number of new recruits are female.

Emma Toulson, who leads on local recruitment at Orsted’s Grimsby office, said gender diversity was something “all industries need to have a better understanding of in order to affect change in the future”.

‚ÄčOrsted (formerly Dong Energy) is supporting both the POWERful Women organisation – which seeks to advance the professional growth and leadership of women across the UK’s energy sector – and also the Women into Manufacturing and Engineering (WiME) scheme in the Humber region, which is aimed at helping women discover job opportunities in the manufacturing and engineering sectors.

“WiME has been a huge success in its first year with a number of major British and international companies taking part and we hope to build on this success in 2018,” said Ms Toulson.

“Through initiatives like these, we hope to explore the barriers faced by women in the energy sector and help redress the gender balance – through mentoring, coaching and networking opportunities.”
Melanie Onn, MP for Grimsby, said pupils at schools in the region were in the ideal location to benefit from studying “STEM” subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – with so much skilled industry based locally.

“STEM subjects aren’t often taken up by young women, but those are the areas where the jobs of the future will be, particularly in Grimsby,” said the Labour MP.

“On our town’s doorstep we have petro-chemicals, pharmaceuticals, food processing, ports, and the growing renewable energy sectors – all of which offer good, long-term, well-paid jobs for people with qualifications and training in these areas. 

“When I met with a group of offshore wind apprentices, a young woman told me she had transferred from a hairdressing course and found her new work far more interesting and fulfilling.”

Read more: Chemical sector enjoys growth as Industrial Strategy sector deal delights

The junior Opposition minister echoed the call for more to be done to give “better advice” to young people on how studying certain subjects relates to a real-world job they might have in the future.

“I’d like to see teachers demonstrating how what they are teaching in the classroom can be employed in the workplace,” said Ms Onn.

As part of the Government’s industrial strategy plan, ministers have promised to invest an additional £406 million into STEM subjects to address the UK’s low ranking when it comes to producing graduates with technical skills.

The white paper produced by the Business, Energy and Industry Strategy department also said it wants to “remove barriers” for women in accessing well-paid jobs.

The hope for women – and the UK’s economic productivity levels – will be that, once the strategy is realised, there will be no such things as “boy and girl jobs” anymore.



Follow us on Facebook and Twitter

Education, Training & Public Sector News
Share Article

Grimsby News

Young's Seafood IS up for sale - owners confirm process has begun

Hull & East Riding News

Celebrating the Energy Estuary: Humber Renewables Awards shortlist is revealed

Scunthorpe News

Eminent architect outlines a need for Scunthorpe steel in the City

Your News

Would you want your employees working from home? Read more in our Your News special report