During her visit Andrea Leadsom MP met with some of the college’s key employment partners, including ourselves and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, where she discussed the benefits and opportunities that UTCs can provide to students in working towards achieving productive careers.
She said: “The £10 million investment in this University Technical College will help young people in Warrington and the surrounding area develop the skills they need to meet the challenges of the modern world. Making sure our young people have the right skills to compete is key to helping the region prosper as part of the Northern Powerhouse.”
I sat down with the Minister to discuss her career, skills gaps in the nuclear industry and females taking up science and engineering as a career.
JM: What attracted you to a career in politics?
AL: I was thirteen when I decided to be an MP, and it was because of the Cold War. I was terrified that there might be a nuclear war, and so my theory was that if I became an MP I could make sure this didn’t occur.
JM: What are the most enjoyable parts of your role?
AL: As an MP, it’s definitely being able to wave a ‘magic wand’ and try and help to solve people’s problems. I do get lots of cries for help from my constituents (in South Northamptonshire) on issues ranging from parents trying to get their child into a particular school, to a family whose mum has had a terrible experience in hospital, to problems with Visas or benefits – quite harrowing stories sometimes. One of the best things about being an MP is the extent to which you write on that magical House of Commons letterhead and suddenly things can start to happen and that’s incredibly satisfying.
JM: Do you believe the UTC has a strong role to play in filling the skills gaps in engineering and science to support key industries such as nuclear?
AL: Yes, absolutely. It’s really interesting to see the new build today and in particular to hear about the amazing, hi-tech equipment that will be available to young people that will give them a real chance. Not just to hear about what engineering is, but to actually get involved themselves. I think the practical level of involvement for young people, working alongside local engineering organisations, will be really inspirational and raise their interest, and I sincerely hope that the college will attract the interest of girls to STEM subjects.
JM: What do you believe are the challenges in attracting students, including females to study STEM subjects and then take up science as a career?
AL: I think there is a bit of a cultural thing about girls’ jobs and boys’ jobs, and I think it’s really important that teachers treat students as students and look at where their talents and interests lie.
My daughter, who is 12, is really keen on the Minecraft computer game which is incredibly creative. In the game you’re building and designing using technology, so to me that is quite a science based, definitely a skills-based interest and I think often it’s the interpretation of what constitutes an interest in science that should be captured. It’s not whether you’re using a drill but actually what is your level of interest.
I think it’s potentially easier to attract boys and the real challenge is to attract girls, but at the same time the advantage of the UTC is being able to offer students the chance to have a go themselves, to be creative, to use their talents at designing new pieces of equipment or just playing with some of the kit. I think it’s really important, and my strong advice to teachers is look outside the box slightly and try and identify where the STEM interests lie.
JM: Have you encountered any challenges/barriers as a female while you have progressed through your career?
AL: Very much so, yes. When I started life in the city in finance, there were all sorts of challenges with being female and I’m glad to say that a lot of those barriers I faced have now gone away. The interesting thing is people say to me “isn’t politics incredibly sexist?” and I always say no, compared to where I’ve come from its actually extraordinarily egalitarian in politics.
JM: How do you believe females can progress in a male dominated organisation such as engineering?
AL: I think they are progressing, I think there’s every opportunity and I think what’s changed perhaps in the last 10 or 20 years is everyone has come to realise the value of diversity. It’s not just about ‘oh, we need the odd few women in here’ but I think people generally have started to realise the benefit of having a different type of person involved in a particular job.
I remember meeting a fantastic female engineer at Sellafield who was talking about her own work. She’s running a very complicated decommissioning project and said – very tongue-in-cheek – that men would make ‘big plans’ but then she came along and got strong daily delivery into project.
Whether you can say that’s a female characteristic versus a male characteristic I don’t know, but the point is that a diverse range of views and approaches is always going to benefit the industry, and the fact that this is recognised means that we are breaking down any barriers.
JM: What words of advice would you give to aspiring students who wish to take up a career in science?
AL: Think broadly and don’t limit yourself. Don’t imagine there’s only one type of science because science applies across so many areas, from technology to health care to engineering to energy.
If you go into science you’ve got a broader career choice than if you pursue other subjects such as English. You will tackle practical and theoretical challenges and develop skills to allow you to branch into any career.