STEM: Our engineers of tomorrow

startup-849805_1920Last week in Westminster I took part in a debate on “Space Policy” and given current events, it was tempting to quote Major Tim Peake or even David Bowie. Instead, I quoted the words of Bridget Day – an Engineer with over 40 years’ experience in the Aerospace sector who, as the deputy programme director for the national aerospace technology exploitation programme, heads up a team of engineers helping aerospace supply chain companies with new technology.

She said: “There is an assumption that I am the secretary and not that I am the boss. My reputation is never assumed, like a man’s often is, I always have to earn it.”

Having met Bridget at a meeting earlier in the week, it amazed me that anyone would assume anything less than, she was a professional at the very top of her field. Yet for many successful women, across all professions, it is an all too familiar story. Even in a day where leaders of three of our main political parties are women, including our First Minister, it disappoints that there is still much work to be done.

For example, in the aerospace sector where Bridget works, only 11% of engineers are female despite the fact that 21% of engineer graduates are women. This is the lowest percentage of female employment in the sector across Europe. For Bridget that translates to being one of only two women in a team of twenty four engineers and more often than not it means being the only women in the room. This, at a time when there are significant skills shortages at every level of the industry.

Here in the Highlands we must lead the way. As well as promoting the sector to girls and young women so that they become the engineers and technology innovators of tomorrow – this skills gap also offers a wealth of opportunity for a low wage economy like ours.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) industries continues to grow and I want the Highlands to be the place that businesses in the sector see as their natural home. We need to educate our children for the industries of the future and ensure that we build a pool of talent that attracts business and generates growth for years to come.

There are already some fantastic projects turning this vision into a reality. Be it the digital classrooms, now a welcome feature of Highland Schools; or the Academy9 programme, aimed at providing students growing up along side the £3 billion pound A9 construction project, the opportunity to learn more about the engineering, mathematics, scientific and design skills; or the Science Skills Academy, a project that aims to promote STEM careers to young pupils across the Highlands.

Education is the key and it is vital that this also extends to those who influence our young people such parents and grandparents. The Science Skills Academy aims to do exactly this. It is a collaborative enterprise that brings together organisations such as Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the Highland Council and a range of private businesses and engineering companies. It aims to encourage young people from pre-school, throughout their education and beyond, to take advantage of the opportunity of gaining skills in a sector that has exciting opportunities.

We ask our children to dream big. In fact, we should encourage them all, boy or girl, to shoot for the stars.

It’s time we all did just that. To make the Highlands the number one choice for STEM businesses with ours girls and young women leading the way. Ensuring that our Engineers and Scientists of the future are never the only woman in the room.