Mark Smith

UK & Europe

Mark was a recruiter in the Atkins early careers team, supporting the recruitment of around 400 graduate and apprentice roles across the UK in 2014/15. Mark was involved in the attraction, selection and assessment of applicants primarily for the water & environment and transportation divisions of the business.

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Ok! I admit it, 2015 isn’t quite as predicted 30 years ago in the film Back to the Future Part II and we still all need to use roads. However on the 21st October 2015 we will finally ‘arrive’ in the future of Marty McFly and Doc Brown and the exciting thing is that many of their experiences of the ‘future’ aren’t too far away from our lives today.

As part of the early careers team our job to look ahead and ensure we have the skills and experience in Atkins to adapt to our clients’ future needs. So over the upcoming weeks the team will be travelling all over the UK talking to students about Atkins and the kind of projects they could be working on in the years ahead.

With this in mind I was inspired to look more closely at Atkins and a few of our current projects to see how we are influencing the next few decades and beyond.

Great Scott!!

We might not be travelling to work by flying car or hoverboard just yet, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t experiencing a new age of transportation. Here at Atkins we work on some of the most innovative and exciting transport projects in the world: from major rail tunnelling projects like Crossrail, which has created 42km of new railway tunnels under the capital, through to schemes supporting connected and autonomous vehicles that are inspiring the ‘roads of the future’. Building an integrated and sustainable transport network fit for the 21st century is what we do.

We are currently working on one of the world’s most challenging projects, the Bloodhound supersonic car. Designed to reach record breaking speeds of over 1000mph, it will cover a mile in just 3.6 seconds, at its top speed it would be travelling over 11x faster than the 88mph that Marty and Doc needed to get the DeLorean to 2015.

A huge part of the Bloodhound project is focused on inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers. Over 4,000 primary and secondary schools have signed up to find out more about the Bloodhound through the projects education programme, taking the project into the heart of the community and society. In addition this project also offers a unique opportunity for university level engineering and technology students as they are being given access to the project’s design challenges and test data.

“I need fuel”

Speed was not the only concern in the film, there was also the issue of how to power the car. Doc Brown was able to refuel the DeLorean with technology from 2015, a ‘Mr. Fusion Home Energy Reactor’ that converted household waste into fuel. Although we aren’t quite refuelling our cars this way yet, we are looking at our waste from a new perspective. Reports from the World Bank (2012) state that across the globe we are creating 1.3 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste per year, expected to double in the next decade.

At Atkins we are working with partners to develop waste technologies, such as Advanced Thermal Treatment (ATT), a process that uses raw waste and converts it into a useable fuel. One current Atkins project, a new £146 million facility at the Glasgow Recycling and Renewable Energy Centre, will use ATT technology to generate enough renewable energy to power the equivalent of 22000 households. Although there is still much research required in this field, there is huge potential of waste-to energy technology as a resource for the future.

A ‘future’ with Atkins

But it’s not just our projects that are defining the future. Our people make these innovations possible so it’s really important we continue to find the right people fill our graduate opportunities and become leaders and innovators for our future. With over 400 graduate vacancies and 200 placement opportunities available at Atkins in 2016, we will be looking to fill our largest ever intake, ready to take on the next big challenges…I wonder if any of them could have the solution for a time travelling DeLorean?

UK & Europe,

We need more women to choose engineering

The autumn season is here and in the early careers team that means one thing, the attraction of graduates to our 2016 vacancies.

This year we have nearly 400 graduate vacancies available across the UK and one of the ways we advertise these new opportunities to students is by attending the university’s annual graduate recruitment fairs. However a recent article in the Guardian suggests that this year there will be more competition than ever as employers are “under pressure” to use these events to attract more women.

Figures from the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) suggest that out of the top graduate schemes only 42% of hires are female, despite almost 60% of graduates being women. With those statistics you would think achieving greater gender diversity would be quite easy to achieve. However when scrutinising these figures in a little more detail the challenges are much more complicated.

When we look at the latest data provided by the university admissions service UCAS, we find that the gender balance across engineering courses is highly uneven. In fact 84.5% of students studying engineering degrees are male. This means there are over 20,000 more men than women studying in our sector. This makes the competition to attract female engineers and the issue of hiring to address gender imbalances much more difficult than the AGR’s graduation data implies.

Where does this gender imbalance come from?

Some new research by child psychology and behaviour specialists InnovationBubble found that girls are being impacted by unconscious bias around working in the engineering sector from as early as seven years old, many thinking it is a dirty or messy job. Unfortunately this leads onto the finding that by the time girls were 14 they see engineering as “unglamorous and anti-social” with many “switched off” to the idea of a career in engineering entirely.

Naomi Climer, the first female president of the IET has warned that “engineering has remained stubbornly stuck in the past.” With her concern that parents, teachers and young people just aren’t being properly informed of the “amazing range” of opportunities are available to engineers. (Source: Guardian)

The bright side to this research is that the study also highlights an opportunity. It found that by using positive role models and by talking about the social purpose and impact of engineering with girls from the age of 11, there was a notable change in the girls’ attitudes and impressions of engineering careers.

It’s time to WISE up!

It’s clear to me that if we are going to get the gender diversity we want within the engineering sector, we need to provide more positive engineering influences for girls in this age range.

One way we are doing that here at Atkins is by working in partnership with WISE, a leading campaign that is set up to promote women in science, technology and engineering. The aim of WISE is to get one million more women in the UK STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) workforce. Our work with WISE covers a wide range of different projects, schemes and initiatives that exist to change the perceptions of the STEM industries amongst teenage girls and their teachers. We have over 175 Atkins STEM ambassadors working with schools and colleges to promote these subjects and we are also offering mentoring programmes.

Further to our work with WISE and local communities, we are developing and inspiring our female employees through our Women’s Leadership Council and Women’s Professional Network, which hold regular events across our offices. These initiatives ensure the development of strong female role models and mentors in our sector as well as supporting our employee’s career progression.

With an estimated 1.82million extra engineers being required in the UK over the next ten years, it’s clear that there will be some fantastic opportunities available to our next generation of engineering graduates. It’s now down to us and our industry to encourage the study of STEM subjects, show off the huge potential of careers in engineering and provide positive role models to young people, so that this prospect is exciting for women as it is for men.

UK & Europe,

Many young students are starting to build on their GCSE and A Level results and taking the next steps towards their future careers. For some of these students this step may be decided by more than just the attainment of exam results. With increasing political commentary around rising inequality and declining social mobility, there is striking evidence to suggest that where you grow up and go to school plays a significant part in what opportunities are open to you later on in your career.

A recent report in the Telegraph cites that “since the recession the proportion of people who see poverty and inequality as among the most important issues facing the UK has risen threefold”. This has pushed conversations around social mobility, particularly within higher education institutions, into the political foreground. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, chaired by former Labour cabinet minister, Alan Milburn, has taken a lead role in identifying the factors that impact peoples’ access to opportunities. Covering a complex number of causes and effects such as the quality of schools, grades, family wealth, outreach initiatives and bursaries, the Commission looks at a wide variety of barriers that are perceived to cause inequality and impact social mobility, though there are often disagreements between academics on the overall impact.

Despite this, research conducted by the Centre for Analysis of Youth Transitions (CAYT) suggests that “even when we compare just the academic achievements like-for-like, applicants from deprived backgrounds are often still less likely to get into get into high tariff universities”.

So what’s the hold up?

As an early careers recruiter it is this information that caught my attention, as without access to equal opportunities in the education system, talented young people will not be given the right chances to help fill the much needed skills gaps in our sector. Furthermore our ability as employers to hire and build strong, diverse workforces is being hampered by social inequalities and lack of mobility from within the education system itself. What’s surprising here is that the challenges to increased social mobility are well documented, so when looking for the solutions, what’s the hold up?

In my opinion there are a couple of things that would help move things forward and bring around a wider debate that could improve the prospects of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Firstly, there needs to be a sustainable plan put in place that will support the future of part-time university courses and opportunities for mature students. Universities are already warning of a ‘collapse’ in both of these areas since the increase of tuition fees to £9,000. The chair of the Independent Commission on Fees, Will Hutton, has said that since many part-time and mature students “come from less advantaged backgrounds, the fees hike is potentially having a serious and detrimental impact on their social mobility”. This is an important group of students that should not be overlooked and I believe that universities and employers need to invest in this area to make sure access to education is affordable and suitably flexible so individuals from all backgrounds have access.

Secondly, all of the important social information on students backgrounds such as ethnicity, home town, GCSE, A-level grades and the universities they attend is not yet being disclosed by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), even though there is increasing pressure from politicians and academics. A critic of this, Iain Wright MP, chairman of the Business Innovation and Skills Select Committee, has stated “UCAS is harming efforts to improve social mobility by blocking the release [of this data] to academics…university admissions are a key indicator”. It’s known that currently students from disadvantaged backgrounds are being under-represented at top universities, so although this data doesn’t provide any solutions in itself, it could help to start the building of a more level playing field in the university admission system.

A final trend I have noted is discussed directly by Alan Milburn from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. He discusses the Commissions finding that “low-ability children from wealthy families over take high-ability children from poor families during their school years”. Currently the Commission suggests that it would take at least 30 years to halve the attainment gap at GCSE between pupils entitled to free school meals and their better-off classmates.

But what can be done?

Following on from this, Alan has suggested that “action is required at every level”. He believes that it’s not just schools, colleges and universities that need to take the lead here, but also the wider community including employers who play a vital part.

In the early careers team at Atkins we have a particular focus on our social responsibilities with diversity and social mobility at the forefront of our minds. Stacy Fletcher, our diversity lead, is currently looking at how we can have a more direct impact.

Stacy’s work currently covers a variety of activities at Atkins such as the building of stronger links between recruitment and HR as well as the STEM community at Atkins, which are local hubs set up across the UK that encourage young people to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and maths. She also works closely with universities, looking beyond the traditional Russell Group to assess the makeup of their student populations, allowing us to better understand the entry routes into our graduate opportunities and improve access to our careers for individuals from a wider range of backgrounds.

As a team we also recognise the importance of working with schools across the whole of the UK, ensuring we include inner-city schools and those from less advantaged areas, providing them with careers advice, mentors and support through to offering a range of apprenticeships and working with the wider community to help fund out-reach projects.

Overall it’s clear that there is a lot of work that needs to be done to increase social mobility in the UK. With the education system being the entry point which guides young people’s choices and prospects, it needs to take responsibility for giving greater access to opportunities across diverse backgrounds. However as employers we can also take a lead role, supporting schools, colleges and universities to enable greater social mobility.

UK & Europe,

With the annual cycle of graduate and apprentice recruitment now successfully completed, we are looking forward to inviting nearly 400 new starters into the business by September. However what may surprise you is that the Atkins Early Careers team is still a hive of activity.

Over the past 12 months we have been working behind the scenes on a number of projects looking at our early careers recruitment processes and asking ourselves the question: ‘how are we preparing for tomorrow’s talent demands?’

You may be already familiar with some of the names given to certain ‘generations’ in the workplace, from Baby Boomers (ages 51-70), Generation X (aged 31-50) and Millennials/Generation Y (aged 21-30). What you may not know is that there are some real differences in how these generations look for jobs and what they are looking to get out of them once they are employed. For us at Atkins that means that we need to make sure that our early careers processes and offerings are meeting the expectations of this new, tech-savvy workforce, a ‘millennial workforce’.

A recent report by the Indeed Hiring Lab has shown us that “while the workforce is currently divided almost evenly between the three generations, millennials are predicted to make up 50% of the global workforce by 2020.” In addition to this, as the Baby Boomers retire we are already predicting major skills gaps in sectors such as engineering and technology – this offers great opportunities for the millennial generation.

What’s so different about the millennial generation?

Firstly, the way that people look for jobs is already changing. Millennials are conducting the majority of their job search queries (73%) from mobile devices (Indeed Hiring Lab).

Another key factor is being able to access immediate information sources on companies and brands. Engagement consultancy Talented Heads notes that “millennials love learning what to expect before applying for a role” through digital content which covers what it’s actually like working for a company.

Finally, the expectations of millennials extend way beyond the recruitment process, with the Financial Times reporting that this generation are keen to secure careers with a positive work-life balance in companies that benefit society. This is supported by research conducted by consultancy Global Tolerance which states that “62% [of the millennial generation] want to work for a company that makes a positive impact, with half preferring purposeful work to a high salary.”

What are we doing to engage millennials interested in our sector?

Our approach to engaging millennials is changing for our new 2016 cycle as we adapt to ensure we continue to provide the best experiences for our candidates.

In a world where the majority of our candidates are using mobile devices to look for their new careers, we will be implementing a new mini application form that is quick and easy to complete on the move, allowing our candidates to register their interest in Atkins as soon as they find a role that they are interested in, with easy transition points to other devices when required to complete some of our other stages.

One of those subsequent stages our candidates will experience will be our situational judgement test, a new stage this year. This job preview screening tool uses video to provide a realistic insight into what it might be like to work as a graduate at Atkins, asking them to choose the most likely and least likely outcomes from a series of work-based scenarios.

But just as important as making sure our application experience is lining up with what millennials expect, we also want to provide graduate and apprenticeship schemes which offer that positive work-life balance and project work that has a positive impact on the world around us.

One such project is Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon, the world’s first power-generating tidal lagoon, which will produce enough low-carbon electricity to power over 155,000 homes for 120 years.

Our early careers applicants don’t have to look very far to see how they could work with Atkins to deliver sustainable projects which will provide benefits to society both today and into the future.

Not forgetting Gen-Z

With all this focus on the millennials it is clear that this generation’s expectations have already changed the way we look at attracting and developing our early careers talents. But it’s important that we continue to examine our approaches to ensure we are adapting to our target audiences. With the growth of apprenticeships in the UK and a new generation – ‘Generation Z’ – beginning to look at their career options in the next few years, we should always be asking ourselves: ‘how do we prepare for tomorrow’s talent demands?’

UK & Europe,

As an early careers recruiter for Atkins part of my role is to make sure we attract the best talent to our company and help the business develop a diverse and representative workforce. With women making up around 50% of the working population in the UK it is important that our career opportunities, many of which require skills in Science, Engineering, Technology and Maths (STEM) are seen as real options for young women.

It is particularly important to increase the profile of these careers as choices to a female audience from a much younger age. As the 2014 admissions data from UCAS, the UK’s universities clearing house, reveals that while women have outnumbered men in admissions for years, men remain over-represented in most STEM subjects, most notably in engineering where there are 20,000 more men than women, and computing science, where there are 17,000 more. (source)

In addition to this a recent piece of research on ‘Developing Female Engineers’ led by senior lecturer and engineer Dr. Haifa Takruri-Rizk at the University of Salford has stated that “many of the women surveyed mentioned that their career adviser at school or college demonstrated a lack of practical knowledge about the [engineering] industry and they had to seek out information on their own.” With a key recommendation being that “it is necessary to publicise what an engineer does and what engineering can be so that children – both boys and girls – can develop an awareness of engineering as a career choice at an early stage.” (source)

So why is the #notjustforboys hashtag important?

Atkins is already recognised as one of the Top 50 Employers for women in 2015, (source) and actively supports the #notjustforboys campaign through press and social media platforms. But why is the hashtag so important?

The hashtag #notjustforboys (source) is a national campaign backed by the UK government, set up to support, inspire and raise awareness of the career options available to women through the sharing of experiences and stories from women across a variety of industries, particularly targeting professions which have historically seen an under-representation of women in the workplace.

With this historical under-representation particularly prevalent in professions which rely on Science, Engineering, Technology and Maths (STEM) skills. The #notjustforboys campaign is shining a light on this issue and aims to get more women into work across many of these industries.

The campaign has highlights that since 2011 women have made impressive gains in STEM sectors with (source):

  • engineering professionals (up 10% since 2011) – 7% working in this area are women
  • graphic designers (up 40% since 2011) – 30% working in this area are women
  • science, engineering and production technicians (up 45% since 2011) – 25% working in this area are women

However it’s clear that even though there has been a positive increase in the number of women choosing careers in STEM related professions, there is a lot of work to do before we will truly have diverse workforce in these professions. In my opinion campaigns like #notjustforboys are essential, it provides a space for not only women but also men to discuss what they love about their jobs and share their real experiences of working in diverse teams across the wide variety of STEM career opportunities out there. It also provides the information to young people interested in our careers that are not getting the knowledge required to make an informed choice from their traditional careers services.

It’s only by changing perceptions and promoting these opportunities as real career choices that we will see more interest from young women. So the more we can do to support incentives like #notjustforboys the more accurately represented and the more popular our opportunities become.

UK & Europe,

Following the Queens Speech on 27th May 2015 it is clear that for the UK Government, immigration policy will be a significant focus for the next parliament. The subsequent detail issued by the Home Offices’ Press Office has stated that the Government will be “reforming our immigration and labour market rules, so we reduce the demand for skilled migrant labour…”

It’s probably no surprise that this announcement is important to the recruitment industry and my colleagues and I will be keeping a keen eye on how this proposed Bill could change how Atkins recruits for skilled labour. What might be more surprising is that it is a topic which will also has significant impacts within the graduate recruitment industry as this policy could have knock on implications to the international student market.

The importance of this cohort should not be underestimated, as recent admissions data from UCAS, suggests that 43% of all postgraduates enrolled in UK engineering and technology courses and 50% of those enrolled in maths, were non-EU students (source). In addition international students have been contributing more than £10 billion a year to the UK economy and with increasing numbers of young people choosing to study abroad the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills estimates that this market will have doubled from 2010 and 2015.

Yet a recent report by an ‘All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration’ (APPG) published in February 2015 has already warned that the UK is losing foothold in this international student market.

The APPG report expresses its concern that it is the migration policies that will cause the UK to miss out on the opportunity to benefit from this growth in international study and that our competitor countries such as Australia, USA and Canada are already offering far more generous post-study work opportunities than we currently do.

Overall in 2014 the UK still remains as the second most popular student destination in the world after the United States. However it is important that we notice that our market share is slipping now and encourage the UK Government to consider this when announcing reforms.

The ability to secure post-study work opportunities following qualification is a key factor that students consider when looking at where to undertake their studies. In an industry that is already suffering the impact of a skills shortage in science, engineering, technology and maths (STEM) and where non-EU students they make up such a large proportion of this skills set in UK universities we need to make sure that UK post-study work opportunities remain competitive in a growing international student market.

UK & Europe,

We recently experienced National Apprentice Week (9-15 March) here in the UK – a significant focus in the calendar of any early careers team and a period of vibrant activity at Atkins. Each year we launch our apprenticeship opportunities to coincide with this event and this year we are looking for over 80 new apprentices to join us in the UK.

In my role as a recruiter, I have noticed changing attitudes towards recruiting apprentices in the early careers market and they lead the way when it comes to looking at how engineering and science industries are going to fill the looming UK skills gaps. So it could be said that we are experiencing an apprentice ‘revival’.

The BBC notes that since 2012 we have seen the government investment in apprenticeships reach £1.6 billion and the number of sectors that are able to offer apprenticeships have increased. In addition, with university fees at an all-time high and increasing living costs, the appeal of ‘earning whilst learning’ can be a real alternative. In fact in the Telegraph’s Top 40 richest former apprentices the majority of these professionals have undertaken an engineering or science apprenticeship.

However, despite increasing popularity and cross party political support the latest government figures suggest that the actual number of 16-19 year olds undertaking apprenticeships has fallen. The recent report[PDF] says: “In 2013-14, 119,760 teenagers were on apprenticeships. That compares with 129,890 in 2010.” Some of this can be attributed to the fact that duration of the apprenticeship scheme needs to be at least 12 months to be included in the latest figures. Yet even with this in mind, the number of apprentices in training is not growing as quickly as we might expect, or need it to, in order to meet the growing demand for skills in our sectors.

Overall, it’s clear to me that the increase in the prominence of apprenticeships is not insignificant and we are experiencing a ‘revival’ of sorts in this career path. They provide an alternative route to studying at university and offer young people opportunities to experience the engineering and science sectors first hand whilst they continue to learn new key skills. Despite this it seems that apprenticeships still have some way to go, as there is still a need to increase their appeal to 16-19 year olds. To boost growth, I believe it’s important for the industries involved to continue to offer a wide range of apprenticeship opportunities within the engineering and science sectors, work closely with colleges and learning providers and ensure that the training available is relevant and of a high quality.

UK & Europe,

As an early careers recruiter for Atkins I am part of the team responsible for attracting and recruiting graduates and apprentices for our UK business. However, with Atkins looking to recruit around 400 new early careers starters this year, we’re experiencing the growth in the number of early careers vacancies appearing in UK construction industry and the pressures of the growing skills gap first hand.

Whilst the industry reacts to the current skills deficit by increasingly hiring at an early careers level, I’ve observed greater competition between companies to secure STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skill sets for the future. In my opinion this competition for STEM expertise is the first sign of the looming skills deficit.

A series of articles published by The Guardian in 2015 (ref: one, two, three) along with the recent Atkins ‘Skills Deficit’ report, appears to support this and shows that as an industry we have huge obstacles to overcome in the next few years if we are going to be able to recruit the skills we need.

University challenge

It’s widely discussed that UK universities are not currently producing enough STEM graduates that subsequently stay in the engineering sector to meet industry needs and much more needs to be done to develop gender equality.

The 2014 admissions data from UCAS, the UK’s universities clearing house, reveals that while women have outnumbered men in admissions for years, men remain over-represented in most STEM subjects, most notably in engineering where there are 20,000 more men than women, and computing science, where there are 17,000 more.

In addition, it is clear that we are going to have to look beyond the UK and even beyond the EU over the next few years to secure the skills that the UK industry needs for 2020. Data from 2012-13 suggests that 43% of all postgraduates enrolled in UK engineering and technology were non-EU students, and 50% of those in maths.

With this in mind it is important that the skills deficit in our industry remains at the heart of UK immigration policy considerations.


The move towards increased STEM training and apprenticeships for young people is encouraging, as without more young people undertaking STEM subjects I feel we’ll not be able to conquer the deficit.

The Guardian reports that in 2013, only “7,280 apprentices completed their training across all trades while Construction Skills, the training body, estimates the industry needs 35,000 new entrants just to stand still.”

And a Department for Business Innovation & Skills report (PDF) from March 2014 into technical apprentice provision, goes on to state that:

“An increase in the demand for skilled labour resulting from, say, the start of a major infrastructure development, could quickly result in skill shortages in local labour markets. This suggests that there is a lean system of skills supply in place for technician-type skills. This presents the risk of current supply being unable to keep pace with demand if there is a pick-up in the demand side especially when set within the context of expected future levels of replacement demand for people to work in associated professional and skilled trades occupations”

I would suggest that the construction industry needs to work more closely with government to facilitate this training provision as current learning providers are not yet fully prepared to meet the demand with adequate apprenticeship provision.

The solution

In my opinion, the industry needs to be open to the increased use of EU and global labour markets. We need to provide extra encouragement and careers advice to young people, particularly young women, and support them in the study of STEM subjects. Government and industry also need to work together to ensure more training options are available, as well as making the courses relevant to the careers available after qualification.

Overall I would argue that if we are to secure the STEM talent needed for the UK in 2020, change already needs to be underway. There is no one solution to the problem and tackling the skills deficit will require multiple changes to happen at the same time.

UK & Europe,