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July 13, 2020

A brighter future for diversity & inclusion in the energy sector

Dr Ollie Folayan, chair of Aberdeen-based AFBE-UK Scotland

It’s fair to say great strides have been made in the past 12 months in the energy sector when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

We now have more people from a BAME (black and minority ethnic) background founding STEM-based companies (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and more people from a minority background being pushed towards leadership positions than ever before.

Last year, Oil and Gas UK recognised the need for a task force to champion diversity and inclusion; a group which I am proud to be a part of alongside people with great industry expertise.

Of course, diversity and inclusion are not limited to issues of race but gender as well, with the energy regulator OFGEM setting a target of a 50/50 balance across all pay grades by 2025.

The Association for Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers (Scotland) – AFBE-UK Scotland – has worked tirelessly to encourage greater diversity and inclusion into STEM industries with programmes geared towards personal and professional development.

When AFBE-UK started in 2007, the topic of ethnic diversity inclusion in the engineering sector used to be a conversation killer. Few wanted to talk about it. These days, business is far more open to discussion with many companies now developing mature diversity strategies.

That said, Trevor Phillips, founding chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said at the end of last year that it seemed “people of colour are superglued to the floor” when it comes to being appointed to a position of power, with only 10 BAME people working in leadership roles across companies in the FTSE 100.

And despite making up 13% of the UK working population and 27% of engineering graduates, only 7.8% of engineering professionals come from a BAME background.

One of the best ways to encourage inclusion and the next generation of BAME engineers is to see people from a variety of backgrounds working as engineers at all levels.

BAME engineers need to be made visible and put forward as role models by the companies they work for, so that youngsters see that a career in the STEM arena is a viable option for them.

At AFBE-UK Scotland, we have encouraged more than 2,500 pupils, students and recent graduates to work towards achieving a career in STEM industries with activities ranging from frequent workshops and senior manager engagement with primary pupils, to talks by energy industry leaders. On a personal note, I was proud to highlight the success of these programmes as part of an AFBE-UK group that was invited to Downing Street to share ideas with the Prime Minister’s Special Advisor on social justice, opportunities and young people.

A large number of people who have taken part in our Transition programme were graduates with first class degrees stuck working in irrelevant part-time jobs six months after graduation. What’s been really encouraging is that 70% of those who participate in our programme go on to find relevant work within a year of graduation.

As an organisation, we aim to assist and develop BAME people in STEM industries throughout their lives and careers with programmes for pupils, graduates and, in the next few months, those looking to move into positions of leadership.

For younger people to see more engineering role models from a similar background can only be a good thing for the energy sector.

There’s a belief that race and ethnicity doesn’t matter in the current day and all that matters is how competent someone is. While it is true that competence is the most important quality that should matter, there are unconscious biases which cloud perceptions of how an outcome has been achieved.

The more that people acknowledge that there is an issue and that unconscious biases do exist, then the easier it will be for the industry to move forward.

One option to remove unconscious biases would be for more companies to adopt a policy of anonymous CVs in the hiring process; where ethnic-sounding names are not taken into account and candidates are judged purely on merit. The energy sector can also seek to learn lessons from industries doing better than we are, such as the tech industry.

Another perception among some is the idea that the diversity ought to focus solely on gender. Such a view risks ignoring the experiences of people of colour which often differ from their counterparts even within the same gender. For those that wish to read more I can recommend an article by Ruchika Tulshyan on the Harvard Business Review website (link)

In 2018, STEM companies suffered a recruitment crisis, with a lack of skilled workers in the field leading to a total of £1.5 billion in temporary staffing, recruitment and training costs.

There is no need to go back to that. There’s a huge resource of skilled young, enthusiastic workers out there. They need to be given the opportunity to thrive on a full-time basis.

Organisations such as AFBE-Scotland UK, and others, can help companies maximise opportunities and develop diversity and inclusion strategies. Such a programme is not only the right thing to do – it also makes commercial sense.

The Scotsman

AFBE-UK Scotland’s next Transition event to help graduates prepare for the world of work takes place in Aberdeen on February 15 (2020).