Do degrees kill diversity?

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This week we are delighted to have Katie and Dale to contribute to our Socially Conscious Engineer Series and share with us their views on higher education and diversity issues in the engineering industry.
Do degrees kill diversity? by Katie Nagel and Dale Fisher

Katie and Dale connected over LinkedIn network and sparked a discussion identifying and tackling issues around diversity and inclusion in engineering. 

Katie Nagel is a Systems Engineer currently on maternity leave with 3 children, she volunteers as a Professional Registration Assessor and Interviewer with the IET and stood as a Parliamentary Candidate at the 2015 general election.

Dale Fisher is a Senior Electrical Design Engineer. He is a huge advocate of self-development and is an avid member of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, and the Women's Engineering Society.

Katie’s view:

It’s probably no surprise to anyone working in engineering that the recent APPG report on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM informs that Engineering is still lagging behind the wider workforce on D&I, particularly amongst female workers and people living with disabilities. 

The report highlights the STEM workforce is an integral part of the UK’s labour market and economy, accounting for almost one in five jobs. That’s a huge sector of the economy that’s not including its fair share of diverse talent. The report rightly concludes there is clearly more work to be done.

There is simply no way that all the challenges of the future - green energy, climate change, low carbon transportation - can even begin to be resolved without leveraging diverse mindsets and skills. The engineering industry needs to shift out of second gear and ramp up access to a wider pool of talent. 

There are two main issues at play here, first the need to access a wider pool of existing talent in the job market. Secondly, we need to be inspiring the next generation of diverse engineers that are all running about on the playing fields and school yards. Tackling the first issue helps to solve the second, the next generation will come through when they can “see what they can be” through existing role models. 

Frankly, its a tough issue to solve. I spent my graduate years as a STEM ambassador going into schools encouraging girls into engineering. Years later when I found myself recruiting for an engineering graduate scheme, it felt like a great opportunity to try to close the gender gap. Or so I thought. 

Faced with a stack of excellent CVs, and trying to select fairly based on qualifications and experience, I thought I could do my bit to reduce bias in the system. 

Then the real issue hit me. Choosing blindly without any regard to gender inevitably pulled up a whole raft of male candidates. Yes there were female applicants, many good ones in fact, but I struggled to justify progressing an excellent female maths graduate over an excellent male engineering graduate. Something felt wrong about that. 

Yet many of the female candidates had excellent STEM credentials. I needed to consider the fact that these girls had pursued STEM in light of the extra social barriers, and despite these barriers still had the interest and motivation to apply to an engineering company. 

I needed a more effective method of filtering candidates, one which took into account the whole individual, their motivations and skills. Looking at it through a lens of most relevant degree qualification simply wasn’t cutting it. It wasn’t accessing the whole pool of talent on offer. 

I had to change tack and go back to the candidates for more information about who they were and where they wanted to go. 

A shift in process towards requesting covering letters as well as CVs proved to be highly effective in gleaning a deeper perspective on each candidate and allowed a more rounded decision on who to interview. But it’s a tough thing to measure and it can sometimes be difficult to justify to all stakeholders. 

It’s important that the whole company culture is aligned and everyone is clear on what skills are absolute deal breakers and which ones aren’t. It’s equally important to value “soft skills” (and by the way they’re not “soft”, they’re essential) such as self awareness, resilience and empathy.

I completely understand that this is a minefield for employers and it’s a difficult problem to solve. All of our existing measures of a candidates success and potential need to be challenged. That’s no easy task. 

Dale’s view: 

The title of this blog takes me back to something that someone once said to me many years ago, "experience is more valuable than education". 
If you take the time to think about this statement, how does it make you feel? Does it resonate with you? Do you agree or disagree? Ultimately the statement is just one person's opinion. And whilst everyone is entitled to their own opinions, opinions can also become judgements. And judgements can lead to discrimination, which leads us to having to create blogs such as this one.
Degrees are not the only form of higher education. Apprenticeships and NVQs provide a practical demonstration of an individual’s skills, knowledge and understanding. They allow the learner to gain experience of doing a job, by actually doing the job.
I also feel that society is not made aware of the importance of CPD, continuing professional development. CPD is the term used to describe the learning activities that individuals engage in to develop and enhance their abilities. CPD enables learning to become conscious and proactive, rather than passive and reactive. 
Is society being brainwashed or somehow manipulated into thinking that without a degree, you are somehow inferior to those that do? No-one should ever feel like they are not good enough. The world is full of endless opportunities and we need to encourage everyone to see their worth.
I am not for one second, saying that a degree is a waste of money. Education is important and will always stand you in good stead. The point of the blog is to identify if those without degrees find it harder to get a job, or to even be noticed when put into the same 'pool' of candidates as those with degrees. For me, traits such as honesty, integrity, ethics, and passion are more important than what college or university you attended. Just because you attend a top 1% university, does this mean that you will not lie, steal, or cheat?

Some of the most influential engineers that I have met do not have degrees. These same individuals are Chartered Engineers and are some of the most highly respected and well-known engineers in their field.
Does the hiring process need to change? How can we better educate hiring managers to not discriminate? Is the CV really the best way to showcase what individuals can do?
Everyone is different, everyone has their own unique set of skills and attributes, and the hiring process needs to adapt to accept that not everyone has a degree.
Whilst there is no quick fix to this problem, and there is going to be many right and wrong answers along the way, we must ensure that as a society, everyone is given the opportunity to reach their full potential.

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Added: Jul 13, 2021
Last Modified: Jul 14, 2021
Category: Community Insights