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Primary Engineer—Bridging the Skills Gap

An early start can spark student interest in STEAM, engineering

BURNLEY, England — The National Association of Manufacturing and consulting firm Deloitte predicts more than two million STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) related jobs will go unfilled in the U.S. by 2025 because many in the workforce will lack the necessary skills. It's a global concern that is not unique to the U.S.

Female child working with four wheeled frame
The Structures & Mechanisms with Basic Electrics course from Primary Engineer covers the safe and correct use of tools, materials and basic electrics in the manufacture of a range of vehicles. Photo by Spencer Griffiths

Ford's Corporate STEAM Council and Ford Fund are working to create new opportunities for students to give STEAM a try, while also developing a pipeline of skilled technical talent through signature programs, such as Ford Next Generation Learning. Partnerships with key educational organizations, like Primary Engineer, are also part of the equation.

Primary Engineer is a UK-based nonprofit that is working to encourage primary (elementary) school students aged 5-11 to consider STEAM classes. Created in 2005, the organization links schools with engineers to increase awareness among students and teachers of engineering and potential careers. Ford Fund and Primary Engineer came together three years ago as Ford was seeking new ways to engage students and inspire the next generation of engineers. So far, the relationship has reached 60 schools, 120 teachers and more than 2,700 pupils.

Chris Rochester, UK director for Primary Engineer, explains why introducing children so young to science, technology, engineering and math is critical to increasing the number of skilled engineers and STEAM professionals in the future.

"Research shows that if we do not engage pupils by the end of their primary age education, trying to re-engage them at secondary age education is almost impossible, as mindsets have been established about who they are and who they can be later in life," said Rochester. "For example, girls at primary school age don't perceive engineering as something ‘not for them' so they engage and get involved in exactly the same way as the boys."

Providing opportunities for all young people to connect with engineering, regardless of gender, ethnicity or background, is crucial to addressing the growing global gap in technical skills. Another essential part is changing perceptions about technical careers. Rochester says it's changing for the better, but they still struggle to overcome stereotypes that engineering is a "dirty metal bashing" profession, or that it's very academic and about physics and math and going to college.

"When we ask teachers to draw a picture of an engineer, the majority of them draw a white male in a high-visibility jacket wearing a hard hat and tool belt," continues Rochester. "These stereotypes are not the sum total of engineering. There is an enormous variety of sectors, roles, opportunities and careers out there and different routes into them. We know that there is a gender issue within engineering, but diversity isn't just about gender. We will make a difference by allowing all young people to identify themselves with engineering and to see a potential future for themselves."

Buki Okoro, left, engineer with Ford Motor Company's Powertrain Operations in England, works with a Willows Primary School teacher as part of Primary Engineer resources. Photo by Spencer Griffiths

Buki Okoro is an engineer with Ford's Powertrain Operations in England. She has been volunteering with Primary Engineer over the past two years. She thinks the partnership is having a positive impact on students and believes she has a responsibility to encourage girls to give engineering a try.

"It is important for females working as engineers to visit schools and let students know what these jobs entail," said Okoro, who was named one of Autocar's Great British Women – Rising Stars 2019. "The engineering/mobility sector is one with great capacity for growth and lots of future opportunities. Encouraging young people to see those opportunities is extremely essential."

Teaching the teachers is another important part of the program. Primary Engineer conducts teacher training days that are hosted by Ford on the company's Dunton Campus. Ford engineers also attend to better understand the program and the projects they will be supporting. They also form professional relationships with the teachers, many of whom know little about the workings inside a major engineering center.

"It's interesting to look at the gender imbalance in primary age teaching, with the majority of teachers being female," said Rochester. "Primary Engineer trains teachers to lead and run an engineering project in the classroom, to bring in engineering professionals to support and therefore, the teachers become a positive role model for engineering to all of their pupils, but especially to young girls."

Young boy at table with stuffed monkey in dumper truck
One Primary Engineer course covers the technical design and build of a model lighthouse and dumper truck, promoting the correct use of tools, materials and basic electrics in their manufacture. Photo by Spencer Griffiths

"I decided to attend at short notice and was not disappointed," said Marie Forsyth, teacher, Saint Teresa's Primary School. "Very engaging day, very practical with definite increased confidence being able to deliver this kind of engineering activity. All staff were incredibly enthusiastic about their roles and Ford as a whole."

The projects normally run over the course of a 6-to-7 week school term with Ford engineers assisting in the classroom when they are available. Ford supports the Primary Engineer program called Structures and Mechanisms with Basic Electrics. Younger children produce a shoe box vehicle for their project and the older students create an electric-powered vehicle. It's important to note that these are not car kits with parts to assemble. Each child designs and builds a vehicle from scratch using wood, wooden dowels and wheels, which have to be measured, cut and put together.

"Teachers cannot apply a one size fits all approach to teaching and learning and need to give children opportunities to develop and extend the projects," added Rochester. "It also means that although we get a lot of cars - as you would expect working with Ford engineering professionals - we also get all manner of other designs from the pupils – Mars Rovers, Roman Siege Towers, Blue Whales, Unicorns – the creativity is extraordinary."

At the end of the academic year, Ford Britain hosts a celebration event at Dunton, where students test their vehicles and compete against teams from the other schools. Ford engineers act as judges and engage with the kids, who showcase their cars in the professional engineering setting.

"Students love it. They appear more engaged and have a genuine interest in the application and relevance of subjects they have learned in the real world," added Okoro. "You can see the great sense of achievement on their faces. I can only quantify this as pure joy."

Two white males bending over two children seated at table with horse cutouts and four wheeled models
Chris Rochester, left, UK director for Primary Engineer, with students during one day Structures & Mechanisms with Basic Electrics training course. Photo by Spencer Griffiths

"All of the trainers had very good knowledge of the subject and were able to share this with us. Made it very fun and interactive," said Georgia Knight, teacher, Quarry Hill Primary School. "I feel confident I can take this back to my school and complete the project with my pupils."

Ford Fund invested $16.5 million in 2018 to support education because it is the cornerstone for success. Primary Engineer utilizes real-world engineering as the vehicle to drive STEAM for students, while also helping develop thinking, problem solving, communications and teamwork skills.

"The support of Ford and other companies is paramount and the nugget that really connects with pupils is having the Ford engineering professionals coming into the classroom to support the projects. That is very powerful for children," explained Rochester. "We know that children aspire to become footballers and actors, doctors and teachers, and a range of professions that they see. If they don't see engineering professionals and engineering, they are not going to think about it or consider it. After all, ‘you don't know what you don't know' right?"

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