Work Shadowing

Nicholas Hill - Chief Executive Officer

By: Nicholas Hill
Chief Executive Officer

31st January 2019

Home » STEM

Talking to some sixth formers doing STEM subjects in school recently brought to my attention the issue of work experience or work shadowing for the first time. Work shadowing is a means of helping students understand what the world of work is like, and perhaps also learn something specific about their subject area of interest, through one week spent in the workplace. Schools are apparently pushed by the government to support this, so the practice has become quite commonplace. Our nearest school puts one week aside in the lower sixth form for work shadowing every year, after exams.

It turns out to be surprisingly difficult to find an engineering or technology company that engages in or supports work experience in this area (Cambridge), in spite of the plethora of such companies. It appears that many companies either state explicitly that they don’t offer such placements, don’t respond to requests at all or gave a flat ‘no’. Some say that they do support work shadowing, but only for children of their own employees. I have no idea whether this experience is typical of employers in all sectors, but I rather doubt it, given the numbers of students finding places.

All this made me consider Plextek’s policy on work experience – which has historically been aligned with the experiences I’d heard about, turning down any request for reasons that presumably seemed sensible enough. While supporting work experience undoubtedly generates some additional administrative load, and will put a slight ‘drag’ on the productivity of whichever staff are being shadowed, it seems to me that this is something that engineering and technology companies should be doing.

I’d be the first to complain about the poor numbers of students studying STEM subjects at University, especially in electronics (see my previous blog on the subject). If work experience is a way of showing a few sixth formers what an exciting, interesting career this can be, we should be grasping the opportunity with both hands, and doing a full-on selling job!

I’ve often felt that a problem with electronics is that it is becoming increasingly obscure to those on the outside. Why choose to study something that you have no understanding of or exposure to? Well here’s a way of demystifying it a little.

Last summer we accepted a small number of work shadowing placements for the first time. We gained some good insight into how to engage with sixth formers in an effective way without putting too much drain on internal resources. Next year we’ll be putting more formal arrangements in place with our local sixth form school.

Talking to some sixth formers doing STEM subjects in school recently brought to my attention the issue of work experience or work shadowing for the first time. Work shadowing is a means of helping students understand what the world of work is like, and perhaps also learn something specific about their subject area of interest, through one week spent in the workplace. Schools are apparently pushed by the government to support this, so the practice has become quite commonplace. Our nearest school puts one week aside in the lower sixth form for work shadowing every year, after exams.

It turns out to be surprisingly difficult to find an engineering or technology company that engages in or supports work experience in this area (Cambridge), in spite of the plethora of such companies. It appears that many companies either state explicitly that they don’t offer such placements, don’t respond to requests at all or gave a flat ‘no’. Some say that they do support work shadowing, but only for children of their own employees. I have no idea whether this experience is typical of employers in all sectors, but I rather doubt it, given the numbers of students finding places.

All this made me consider Plextek’s policy on work experience – which has historically been aligned with the experiences I’d heard about, turning down any request for reasons that presumably seemed sensible enough. While supporting work experience undoubtedly generates some additional administrative load, and will put a slight ‘drag’ on the productivity of whichever staff are being shadowed, it seems to me that this is something that engineering and technology companies should be doing.

I’d be the first to complain about the poor numbers of students studying STEM subjects at University, especially in electronics (see my previous blog on the subject). If work experience is a way of showing a few sixth formers what an exciting, interesting career this can be, we should be grasping the opportunity with both hands, and doing a full-on selling job!

I’ve often felt that a problem with electronics is that it is becoming increasingly obscure to those on the outside. Why choose to study something that you have no understanding of or exposure to? Well here’s a way of demystifying it a little.

Last summer we accepted a small number of work shadowing placements for the first time. We gained some good insight into how to engage with sixth formers in an effective way without putting too much drain on internal resources. Next year we’ll be putting more formal arrangements in place with our local sixth form school.

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Further Reading

Women in Engineering and the STEM Flaw

Nicholas Hill - Chief Executive Officer

By: Nicholas Hill
Chief Executive Officer

9th August 2018

Home » STEM

Well yes, I’ve read a lot of commentary on this topic too, and I find much of it quite annoying. The latest one I’ve seen, by the IET, is typical in ascribing the whole problem to gender stereotyping at an early age: girls are irretrievably put off all STEM subjects by the age of 7 because of the role models they see.

What I find annoying about this is the recommendations proffered are always soft actions around fixing the gender stereotype issue itself: improving outreach, information, awareness, role models, status and so on. This seems to me to be a task of a similar order to stopping global warming, or other ‘us against the world’ challenges. And you just know that means nothing effective will be done, and we’ll all be reading the same commentary ten years from now.

However, I was intrigued to see recently some statistics on the number of degrees being awarded in various engineering disciplines, with gender split out of the graphs. Just to baseline how bad the overall problem is: the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, with females representing just 16% of UK undergraduates across all engineering and technology subjects.

Source: www.engineeringuk.com


Electrical and electronic engineering, the most common disciplines in our organisation, are faring particularly badly. Total graduate numbers have flat-lined for ten years, with a total cohort of around 500 females entering higher education courses. With numbers like that you’ll be lucky to see a single CV from a female engineer, let alone fix your organisation’s gender imbalance. But wait a minute, the equivalent figures for ‘all engineering disciplines’ show a doubling since 2007, from 2,500 to over 5,000. This might just reflect the strong growth in overall numbers in some disciplines, such as mechanical engineering, which has also doubled since 2007.

This in itself is interesting, considering that total numbers in electrical and electronic engineering have barely grown at all in the same period. Could it be that, of all engineering subjects, mechanical engineering is the most accessible to the layperson? It’s the only discipline where what is going on is frequently in plain sight. You can see ‘how stuff works’ every time you build a tower with bricks or ride a bike or build a Lego model. Most of the other engineering disciplines, and especially electronics, are getting ever more esoteric and obscure.

Try explaining to any (young) person what is really going on in their smartphone, at a level of detail where you’re tackling the electronics, not the apps that sit on top. Could it be that young people, in general, have less and less idea what electronics is? There is no meaningful exposure to the subject in schools or anywhere else unless you happen to do physics, and even then the coverage is elementary.

Let’s get back to the point. I meet a lot of people working the electronics industry, for companies large and small, in many sectors and locations. When I ask “what is your biggest obstacle to growth?” the ability to find enough young engineers usually tops the list. Indeed, Engineering UK report that 46% of engineering employers feel this way. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to grow the economy through designing and making things that society needs?

Influencing Change

What to do? Well for the sake of our industry it needs to be something more direct and fast acting than taking on humanity’s baked-in gender stereotyping. How about influencing market forces, as there’s something clearly broken in the ‘market’ for graduates?

We have huge demand for electrical and electronic engineering graduates, which has created intense competition amongst employers and seriously pushed up average starting salaries. At the same time, we have graduates in other subjects who are ending up in minimum-wage jobs because they can’t find a vacancy.

Source: www.engineeringuk.com


However, these factors don’t seem to be influencing the decisions A-level students are making about subject choices at university, presumably because the market signal is too weak. Let’s say the government identified the degree subjects that the country’s economy was most in need of. Once identified, they offer to pay the tuition fees of students in those subjects, either fully or partially – and even add a cost of living grant on top.

This is more than a financial incentive for people to take particular subjects; it would be an important signal that the government deeply valued these skill sets and that they are essential for a healthy economy.

In a purely academic sense, all degrees are as worthy as each other and how ‘useful’ they are shouldn’t be a factor. But let’s get this into perspective: the UK is woefully short of electronics engineers, especially female ones. And having the government create incentives at the academic level for the next generation to follow this hard but rewarding profession, in my eyes, would be a good place to start.

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Well yes, I’ve read a lot of commentary on this topic too, and I find much of it quite annoying. The latest one I’ve seen, by the IET, is typical in ascribing the whole problem to gender stereotyping at an early age: girls are irretrievably put off all STEM subjects by the age of 7 because of the role models they see.

What I find annoying about this is the recommendations proffered are always soft actions around fixing the gender stereotype issue itself: improving outreach, information, awareness, role models, status and so on. This seems to me to be a task of a similar order to stopping global warming, or other ‘us against the world’ challenges. And you just know that means nothing effective will be done, and we’ll all be reading the same commentary ten years from now.

However, I was intrigued to see recently some statistics on the number of degrees being awarded in various engineering disciplines, with gender split out of the graphs. Just to baseline how bad the overall problem is: the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, with females representing just 16% of UK undergraduates across all engineering and technology subjects.

Source: www.engineeringuk.com


Electrical and electronic engineering, the most common disciplines in our organisation, are faring particularly badly. Total graduate numbers have flat-lined for ten years, with a total cohort of around 500 females entering higher education courses. With numbers like that you’ll be lucky to see a single CV from a female engineer, let alone fix your organisation’s gender imbalance. But wait a minute, the equivalent figures for ‘all engineering disciplines’ show a doubling since 2007, from 2,500 to over 5,000. This might just reflect the strong growth in overall numbers in some disciplines, such as mechanical engineering, which has also doubled since 2007.

This in itself is interesting, considering that total numbers in electrical and electronic engineering have barely grown at all in the same period. Could it be that, of all engineering subjects, mechanical engineering is the most accessible to the layperson? It’s the only discipline where what is going on is frequently in plain sight. You can see ‘how stuff works’ every time you build a tower with bricks or ride a bike or build a Lego model. Most of the other engineering disciplines, and especially electronics, are getting ever more esoteric and obscure.

Try explaining to any (young) person what is really going on in their smartphone, at a level of detail where you’re tackling the electronics, not the apps that sit on top. Could it be that young people, in general, have less and less idea what electronics is? There is no meaningful exposure to the subject in schools or anywhere else unless you happen to do physics, and even then the coverage is elementary.

Let’s get back to the point. I meet a lot of people working the electronics industry, for companies large and small, in many sectors and locations. When I ask “what is your biggest obstacle to growth?” the ability to find enough young engineers usually tops the list. Indeed, Engineering UK report that 46% of engineering employers feel this way. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to grow the economy through designing and making things that society needs?

Influencing Change

What to do? Well for the sake of our industry it needs to be something more direct and fast acting than taking on humanity’s baked-in gender stereotyping. How about influencing market forces, as there’s something clearly broken in the ‘market’ for graduates?

We have huge demand for electrical and electronic engineering graduates, which has created intense competition amongst employers and seriously pushed up average starting salaries. At the same time, we have graduates in other subjects who are ending up in minimum-wage jobs because they can’t find a vacancy.

Source: www.engineeringuk.com


However, these factors don’t seem to be influencing the decisions A-level students are making about subject choices at university, presumably because the market signal is too weak. Let’s say the government identified the degree subjects that the country’s economy was most in need of. Once identified, they offer to pay the tuition fees of students in those subjects, either fully or partially – and even add a cost of living grant on top.

This is more than a financial incentive for people to take particular subjects; it would be an important signal that the government deeply valued these skill sets and that they are essential for a healthy economy.

In a purely academic sense, all degrees are as worthy as each other and how ‘useful’ they are shouldn’t be a factor. But let’s get this into perspective: the UK is woefully short of electronics engineers, especially female ones. And having the government create incentives at the academic level for the next generation to follow this hard but rewarding profession, in my eyes, would be a good place to start.

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Further Reading