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A message to the UK engineering industry: If you want to inspire schoolkids, find more influencers like Will.i.am

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Engineering needs a new voice. And the pop and TV star/actor/producer/entrepreneur/influencer is the perfect encapsulation of that voice, argues Paul Frisby.

Perhaps you don’t know Will.i.am, but there’s a pretty good chance your kids do. And that’s important.

Perhaps you do know Will.i.am. Maybe you’ve watched The Voice, the popular BBC show where a panel of established music industry judges select candidates to join their team based on blind auditions. They listen to voices, but don’t see the singers. Unable to make any judgement beyond identifying the presence of potential in a contestant’s voice, they are un-swayed by race, gender, sexual identity, class or contemporary notions of attractiveness. In the early stages at least, the show is an experiment in minimising bias, albeit a light-hearted one.

For anyone still none the wiser, Will.i.am is a musician, rapper, actor, producer and director. But wait – I’ve barely started. He’s also an entrepreneur, an innovator and a visionary. He’s described by Engineering and Technology Magazine as “an innovation consultant with a passion for merging the worlds of technology and design,” and his business CV would make the most precocious millennial entrepreneur proud. His multi-faceted portfolio career is the quintessence of 21st Century success.  

But best of all, he is an advocate for education - no mere cheerleader for empowerment through education, but an agent of it. His i.am.angel Foundation provides support via charities to people in underserved communities, helping the young to transform their lives through scholarships, college preparation and access to opportunities in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics. Part of his message to his massive audience (he has over 13 million followers on Twitter alone) is about the opportunities these subjects can create for the young, and part of it is about empowerment – not just the importance of education, but the idea of being the change you seek.

Last year, he was rewarded with an Honorary Fellowship from the IET for his outstanding contribution to the engineering profession, and rightly so.

I have huge respect for Will.i.am and his work facilitating young engineering careers. And I am fascinated by the way he understands just how to influence future generations and inspire their interest in technology careers. For me this is something that is still being missed by many organisations who struggle to combat an old problem - the need for more engineers - using old-fashioned methods, arguments and appeals to economic imperatives.

The years before students choose their options are the years when you can really inspire them about their future careers. Will.i.am thinks engineering is cool. He shares that belief with anyone who will listen to him. Perhaps engineering needs social influencers who can rebrand it. Perhaps it needs new voices.  

A lot of businesses are doing very good work trying to broaden the appeal of engineering. But applicants for college courses are still overwhelmingly male. The ratio of male to female students in my son’s engineering course at college was 30:2.

I doubt even Elon Musk, the rock-star of engineers, could persuade my twelve-year-old daughter that engineering is a great career choice. But an influencer with a more crossover appeal – someone who speaks to the worlds that occupy the young – fashion, music and design – probably could.

What does Will.i.am do that works so well? He yolks STEM subjects and education itself to ideas about social change and empowerment. His message to young people is not just to get into education, but also to build your own business, become a giver, make a difference – something that is part of the millennial agenda.

To quote the man himself, on receiving his IET award:

“I always tell the young kids that I come across: aim your dreams down a path of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics to not only fill jobs but create jobs. Surround yourself with other engineers and aim to be a part of the club that is out there solving the world’s problems...”

I think Will.i.am does two things for the STEM agenda that social influencers can do, and a lot of engineering brands cannot: 1) Make it seem cool and 2) Make it part of a broader lifestyle choice.

The way things become on-trend has changed. In recent years we’ve seen an explosion of health and fitness influencers – people whose every workout routine or healthy meal is lapped up by millions of followers who share their gurus’ recipes, routines and motivational advice. Today, millions of Instagram posts, tweets and Facebook shares show off regular people’s post-workout breakfast, 10K route, kettlebell workout and Tough-Mudder photos. People follow James Haskell, Chloe Madeley or Joe Wicks but they also participate in the conversation, and so do their friends.

STEM industries should look at how healthy lifestyles have been promoted with huge success by people who have been able to tap into the zeitgeist. They should learn from how celebrity endorsement has facilitated the healthy lifestyle trend, and use it to encourage young people (especially girls) into STEM. And the rewards must be trumpeted too – not just the opportunities for social change, but the day-to-day pleasures of working in cutting edge and vibrant environments.

For too long, engineering in the UK has languished in the doldrums, shackled with a reputation as a poor man’s (yes) career choice. In the US and parts of Europe, this is an archaic perception, or one that never existed at all. 

When I was a young person, the UK jobs with allure and credibility were doctor, surgeon, solicitor, perhaps city trader and high-ranking academic. But never an engineer. As an engineer, my father didn’t get the respect he deserved from society. Neither did his profession. But engineers are the people who change the way we live. Every day, almost everything we do involves something invented or made by engineers. Without them, we are nothing.

Today, firms like McLaren Applied Technology, Castrol InnoVentures, Dyson and many more are rivalling the social media giants of Silicon Valley with their vibrant workplaces. The best engineering firms are hotbeds of innovation, with modern working environments: greenery, onsite gyms, the latest technology, and as much daylight as you’d get in your local park. And aptly so, because the future is bright for those with a good degree in engineering. Perhaps we just need a few stars to light the way.