Professor Rosalind Archer is the Acting Deputy Dean of Engineering at the University of Auckland. She is also Deputy President of Engineering New Zealand. We caught up with her to look at some of the critical challenges that the engineering sector faces.
What challenges do you see in the engineering sector over the next few years
The engineering sector is at a point in its history where it needs to reposition itself to become a profession of choice. It must be capable of attracting people who are creative, problem solvers and want to do something in society. While prospective engineers will still require a high level of competence in maths and science subjects, creativity and problem-solving skills are becoming essential
What is the University of Auckland doing to attract women into engineering
We have a campaign running to attract more women into our engineering courses. The former Dean of Engineering tasked us with ensuring women make up 33% of our classes - we're currently at around 27.5% - but that number has plateaued for a few years now. The level of women studying engineering is for Australasia, but we're investing a lot of time and effort into shifting the dial even further.
We've some great industry partners on board who've committed funding for four years to help us achieve our target.
What's preventing more women studying engineering at university?
That's the million-dollar question.
In my final year of high school, I found out about engineering by accident, and it appears that young women still find out in the same way.
Students generally have someone in their wider network that's involved in the industry like family, friends or a sports team member. That person generally points them in the direction of engineering. Unless this happens, women may not see engineering as an occupation of choice.
What do you remember about your first few years in the industry?
It certainly had its moments. I well remember the time during an internship when I was asked to wear a short skirt to a meeting so that there was a chance that negotiations could progress more smoothly. Needless to say, I turned up in an ankle-length skirt. you can see that my introduction to engineering wasn't necessarily without its bumps, but 99% of the time I felt accepted and a valuable part of the businesses I worked for.
Do women in the engineering fraternity at the University of Auckland feel they are a minority group?
Sociology research says that once a group becomes one-third of a population, the sense of being part of a minority is greatly diminished. Given that women make up 27% of engineering students at the University of Auckland, we are well on the way to ensuring they don't feel as if they are part of a minority group. I believe our female students generally turn up to lectures feeling they are who they are and enjoy the experience of being part of a larger group.
What is the role of the Women in Engineering Network at the University of Auckland?
When I was a student at the university, I co-founded the Women in Engineering Network (WEN), and it is now an integral part of our faculty. It's great to see that the members of the group are now leading a lot of our outreach work which is helping attract young women into engineering.
WEN fosters relationships between female students and professional engineers by coordinating social activities, professional development opportunities, and forums for academic support.
And what about high school students?
We have some fantastic summer school/boot camp-type programmes.
Students who've not achieved some parts of NCEA (possibly because they didn't attempt some subjects as they were not available at their schools) can attend the camps and receive a month of tutoring. This helps them attain the credits required to enter engineering. At this year's summer school, Māori and Pacific targeted cohort attracted over 50% female students.
How can consulting firms support this process?
Some of our industry partners provide us with financial support to help us run programmes aimed at increasing the number of students studying engineering.
Tonkin + Taylor is one business that helps us by funding transport options for students. Often Māori and Pacific students live some distance away from our campus, and bus/train fares can prove to be prohibitive. The daily travel costs faced by some of our South Auckland students were high enough that they chose to watch the class online rather than being in the lecture theatre and the labs. The public transport funding that Tonkin + Taylor provides allows those students to attend class more regularly.
What other ways can industry support students?
It's not just about money. The engineering industry can support our recruitment work by ensuring we have opportunities to showcase the importance of engineering to communities when a student leaves university through alumni participating in outreach events.
What are the short-term challenges for the industry?
One of the significant challenges for our students in the post-COVID-19 world is finding summer employment. While obtaining a degree is about going to lectures and labs at university, it is also about gaining practical experience through working in the industry. These summer positions are invaluable in allowing students to get a taste of what it's like to be a professional engineer, and I would challenge the consulting sector to keep hiring summer interns. The landscape has certainly changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and while you may not need more workers right now, hopefully, you will need staff when the students graduate in three or four years.