Engineering as ‘aspirational’ career path: vision of University of Sheffield leadership academy

Sheffield Engineering Leadership Academy aims to equip graduates with the ‘soft skills’ required for industry or academia

December 10, 2015
University of Sheffield student with tunnel boring machine (TBM)
Wide view: ‘one objective is to provide opportunities to engage with research’

The UK lacks sufficient numbers of engineers, especially in industry, it is often said. A scheme run by the University of Sheffield is trying to combat this by showing undergraduates that engineering is an “aspirational” career path.

“The numbers of engineers we require [in the country] are quite challenging,” said Neil Hopkinson, director of the Sheffield Engineering Leadership Academy (Sela) and professor of manufacturing engineering.

“What I see Sela doing is making engineering perhaps a more aspirational career choice than it might have been…and that will then hopefully feed down and change a societal perception in the UK. That’s an important step to [increasing] the numbers and the quality of our next generation of undergraduates and the following generation of engineers.”

Sela, which has been running since 2014, is an “extracurricular leadership scheme covering all the engineering disciplines” which aims to “address the UK skills gap in engineering by equipping graduates to take on leadership roles and create a positive impact in research and industry”, according to its website.

Professor Hopkinson said that engineering courses at UK and global universities are excellent in terms of “technical content”, but perhaps were not as strong in developing the students’ “softer skills” which “augment those high technical skills and content”.

The scheme has a limited number of places available for undergraduates and they must show the necessary “aptitudes and potential”. The programme is looking for students who demonstrate a range of qualities including enterprise, good judgement and personal vision. Other qualities it looks for are flexibility and self-awareness/self-improvement.

“What we’re looking for are students who have either demonstrated some of those attributes or look to have the propensity to demonstrate those attributes,” Professor Hopkinson said. “We get a mix of both.”

He continued that improving engineering graduates’ all-round skills is one of the programme’s fundamental aims, as this will best equip them for the professional world.

“It’s very much focusing on the soft skills with a view of developing these individuals for leadership positions,” he said. “The simplest way to picture how we think Sela undergraduates may come out of university compared with others is that most of our undergraduates would expect to be suitable for graduate programmes in companies.

“A lot of very large companies have fast-track graduate programmes and we’d expect the profile of Sela graduates would be suited to these fast-track routes.”

What makes Sela different perhaps to other similar schemes is that it doesn’t focus solely on packaging undergraduates for industry. It also aims to encourage its students to consider a career in academia, something that they will not necessarily have thought about before, Professor Hopkinson noted.

“One of the objectives is to broaden the experience of the students by providing opportunities to engage with research and perhaps put the whole concept of doing an engineering PhD on their radar,” he said. “The mindset of the undergraduate engineer very much is thinking about going into industry, whereas perhaps with a scientist there’s a bit more of an interest, a skew towards continuing to do research in the fundamental sciences. In engineering, we don’t manage to retain some of the higher performing undergraduates who are willing to stay on and do academic research, or consider an academic career.

“The expression ‘engineering’ doesn’t really resonate as well as perhaps maybe ‘science’ does. A lot of people, students in schools, will study sciences but they won’t study engineering. That is something that we’re looking to address.”

The bonus of this multifaceted programme, Professor Hopkinson said, is that if students decide that the academy is not for them, they will “at least know how universities will work, so that when they go and work in industry they’ll have a better chance of being able to strike up positive working relationships” with universities.

So what does Professor Hopkinson envisage for the future? Ultimately, he would like to see the appointment of the first Sela professor, but from its early days he is already noticing a “strong network of people with vision in engineering and with ambition [to become] leaders in engineering”. He also foresees possibilities of Sela students assuming leadership positions in “government or non-governmental organisations even”.

He also expressed a hope that the Sela model might be emulated by his colleagues in other institutions. Within Sheffield, Sela students are already encouraging other engineering undergraduates to consider applying for the course. Although pleased with this, Professor Hopkinson has a word of warning.

“Sela students are pre-warned that it’s going to be hard work, and they know that, and we’re good to our word on that,” he said. “Sela is a great opportunity, but also very hard work. I’m delighted that that message is out there.”

In numbers

55,000 – the current annual shortfall of skilled workers, according to Engineering UK

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