Courtesy Stephanie Holko
Q&a

Survey of Engineers: Pushing Roles to the Edge of Possibility

Nov. 1, 2023
A thought leader on advanced manufacturing and professional engineers analyzes research on what drives attrition in engineering and answers the question of applicable skills.

When Machine Design invited Stephanie Holko, director of project development at NGen Canada, a non-profit innovation cluster focused on advanced manufacturing, to discuss a recent survey of engineers conducted by the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE), we learned that the findings suggest a profession that is moving toward more equality and equal representation for women and men. However, an analysis further revealed that systemic barriers limit women’s participation and slow the transition. In fact, some talented engineering professionals are driven away from the field to seek out adjacent lines of work.

Holko, a licensed professional engineer based in Ontario, is also the president and chair of the Board at OSPE. Holko brought 17 years of experience to these roles, having worked as a process engineer and engineering manager, leading teams and projects in the steel industry. She holds a Bachelor of Applied Science in chemical engineering from the University of Waterloo and an MBA specializing in the management of innovation and new technology from McMaster University.

Holko’s twin roles—at OSPE and NGEN Canada—uniquely positions her to tackle an analysis of current trends in the engineering profession. “NGEN Canada, or next generation Canada, was founded on the principle that digital transformation and advanced manufacturing will enrich the lives of Canadians delivering better products and good jobs while generating economic growth, which is essential to our better future,” Holko said. “It aligns very well with my own beliefs in my role as director of project development. We currently have an open call for projects in the zero-emission vehicle supply chain and upcoming funding in quantum technologies and industrial decarbonization. So very topical, very exciting work that I get to do at NGen.”

READ MORE: The Rise of the Sustainability Engineer

In the abridged Q&A that follows below, Holko discusses how the benchmarking report, Ontario's Engineering Community and Transition, is used to define the shape and scale of change of the engineering pipeline.

Machine Design: Can you give us a snapshot of human resources in the engineering landscape? Who is coming, who is leaving? What is happening around you?

Stephanie Holko: With OSPE, one of their primary pillars of advocacy is equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility (EDIA). OSPE believes—and I as well—that EDIA, and the lack of, is a major contributor to the success of individuals in STEM. So, I want to preface the comments about who is in the profession and what’s happening there with that lens.

OSPE’s report was published in late 2022. Of the 821 engineers and engineering graduates surveyed for the research, roughly half were over the age of 50 and only a quarter under the age of 35. You can see that there’s a demographic shift in industry, and it’s happening in the engineering community as well.

Of those respondents, 78% were men and they were mostly educated in Canada. The survey results indicated that 29% of employed engineers and engineering graduates were between 50 and 64. So not too far from retirement. Established engineers and engineering graduates, typically older and more often male, expressed greater positivity towards the profession.

The report also looked at the opinions and perspective of the different groups that were interviewed. Gender-diverse, younger and internationally trained engineering graduates were positive, but expressed noticeably more hesitation and uncertainty on key questions about engineering reputation in society and their own career opportunities.

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One-third of all engineers and engineering graduates, predominantly from those latter groups, reported that the profession might be falling out of step with modern society. And certainly, that’s a concern. And there was a reduced emphasis on core engineering disciplines, which makes sense because we’ve seen a lot of change in society over the last three years, but also over the last few decades. Certainly, since I graduated.

Fewer than half of engineers and engineering graduates believed that the schooling was affordable, that gender representation and other metrics of EDIA in the profession are sufficient and that wage standards are equitably applied. There’s definitely some work to do there about how folks are seeing the profession showing up and OSPE is looking to address these gaps.

EDIA is one of OSPE’s core pillars and advocacy is one way of interfacing with government bodies, regulators and other stakeholders to advocate for good practices and to promote EDIA in engineering. When OSPE conducts research, they’re looking to conduct research with that lens so that they have more to offer.

MD: You’ve alluded to the idea that core disciplines are shifting. These findings, with respect to an interdisciplinary shift, resonate across North America. We’ve seen it in other research as well, where there is greater demand for soft skills—for example, communication skills—certifications, use of emerging technology and emphasis on applied knowledge. Can you weigh in on what the in-demand skills are as you see it? What, in your estimation, does the industry get wrong?

SH: Classical engineering is always going to be required; it’s always important to a functioning society. We always need bridges and roads and water treatment and buildings and those types of things. And from a technical perspective, those things don’t shift. When you look at can we recycle, can we renew, are there heritage buildings that we can reuse...those types of trends shift the field of practice to align with societal trends. But the fundamental principles, I would say, don’t particularly change. They may upgrade.

What’s emerging as a cross-disciplinary focus that I see across the board, including skilled trades, and not just within technical disciplines, is being able to translate ideas into a business context, or even sales, when you’re trying to express your ideas or move a project forward. By-and-large, the essential skills that are coming out are being able to find the right and correct information. It’s no longer about going to an encyclopedia. There’s so much information, and it is on the engineer to find the right information and then test it to make sure that it’s correct. We need to understand new technologies and how those technologies impact society.

And then, regardless, essential leadership skills of empathy, collaboration, influence and communication will never go out of style and will become more and more important as we rely more on technology. It’s an increasingly noisy and complex world, and someone who has a very strong technical background but can also communicate in a business context is going to do really well going forward.

MD: Let’s pick on women and underrepresented groups within the study. The research in that study shows that women feel less welcome in the profession. What did they cite as the barriers and what are the biggest challenges?

SH: This is a tough question; it speaks to a leaky pipeline. And…was so frustrating to me, because these folks had self-selected into technical fields and then they leave due to a variety of factors—not because the work is difficult or they’re not capable, but they could feel unwelcome. The attrition that we’re looking at in STEM roles and engineering roles could occur due to job dissatisfaction, inadequate support or a lack of belonging.

There’s a lot of implications that come from that. So now you’re not only losing that talent and knowledge, but also a different perspective. A lot of the world is designed for a very typical male. Whether you look at car safety or truck settings or the way that building systems are created, they were created based on the 1950s model of a particular type of individual, and then everything else was deemed separate from that standard.

And that’s not going to serve the people you need to serve if that continues to be your benchmark. So, understanding the causes of attrition means that you can get those diverse voices back at the table because you can launch those initiatives to address those issues. It benefits individuals, it benefits companies and it’s going to benefit society as a whole.

READ MORE: Workplace Culture: Do Your ERG Efforts Reflect the Experiences of Your Workforce?

A little bit older research: In February 2015, OSPE conducted a needs assessment survey of over 1,500 respondents. In that study, 97% of female respondents thought mentorship was important when starting an engineering career after graduation. Mentorship programs are not new and, certainly, I don’t think difficult to implement. You just have to do it with intention.

Two-thirds of the respondents agree that mentoring improves women’s career prospects and retention in the engineering profession. So that’s very important. Lack of confidence is common in the workplace—particularly among women—leading to dissatisfaction, often mental health issues due to work. So, OSPE found that women in engineering struggled to foster the credibility that is afforded to their male colleagues.

And, I will say that there have been times where I’ve maintained my professional licensure because it gives me that credibility when I walk into a room. That’s a personal anecdote, but you can see that it translates in the research as well.

The top challenges survey respondents face as women engineers include fewer opportunities for field work than colleagues (23%). And then feeling disrespected and undervalued by managers or coworkers (>20%). That’s definitely something to dig deep.

If you’re leading a team or you’re running a business, you need to dig deep and maybe consider some of the other factors that are affecting your workforce. And I want to say it’s not just women. There are people of all genders that would feel those things as well.

Editor’s Note: Machine Design's WISE (Workers in Science and Engineering) hub compiles our coverage of workplace issues affecting the engineering field, in addition to contributions from equity seeking groups and subject matter experts within various subdisciplines.

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