She’s become a leading figure in engineering, using her skills to encourage more young girls to explore the sector as a career and working with schools across the region to bring science and technology to life. But things were a little different when Michelle Dow, managing director of MerseySTEM started out, as she tells Move Commercial.
When Michelle Dow first entered the engineering world she admits it was very much a man’s world. Indeed the British Gas depot in which she began her apprenticeship at 16 didn’t even have a female toilet.
It was the early 1990s and engineering was still seen as a career for the boys. Thankfully, says Dow, she attended a school that actively encouraged students to pursue subjects they could excel in and not just those considered more traditionally suitable.
“King David School (in Liverpool) was great,” she says. “You were never pushed down a specific route, you really did do what you were good at. I wasn’t very good at food technology, I’m still not, so I did woodwork and CDT. That was the kind of thing I was interested in, I suppose your traditional ‘boys route’. I hate the whole idea of what’s traditional and what’s not traditional.”
As part of a school project exploring possible careers Dow began looking into the engineering sector and decided it offered the type of opportunity she was after – the chance to make money whilst carrying on learning.
“It was a bit unusual in the early 1990s,” she says. “I was a high achieving student in a good school, with most people going on to do A Levels, and it was not ‘traditional’ to go to do an apprenticeship.”
Nevertheless, at 16 Dow applied for five apprenticeships and received offers from four, eventually choosing to accept the offer from British Gas.
Whilst Dow speaks fondly of her male team members who she says took her under their wings, she admits it was obvious this was ‘traditionally’ a man’s world, not least by the aforementioned lack of a ladies lavatory.
Still, Dow excelled on her three-year apprenticeship, qualifying as one of the first female gas service engineers.
A fan of lifelong learning, Dow made sure she grabbed every opportunity to train further and better herself at British Gas and before long “swapped the gas van for a BMW” when she was given a project manager role.
“I did woodwork and CDT. That was the kind of thing I was interested in, I suppose your traditional ‘boys route’. I hate the whole idea of what’s traditional and what’s not.”
“I was looking at what British Gas did as an organisation to encourage more girls and more ethnic minorities into the apprenticeship scheme,” she explains. “I worked for British Gas Engineering Academy and we did lots of things that were different. I remember going to the head of the academy and asking for budget for pink lip gloss. We’d go to recruitment events and have these pink lip glosses with the engineering academy website on. We started advertising in magazines girls actually read. It was all about getting to the right audience.”
Dow’s work with the Engineering Academy caught the attention of another organisation called Women in Science and Engineering, which was based in London.
“I was really lucky that I got the opportunity to go and do a secondment with that organisation in London, as project director looking at its branding and how it could get more girls excited about engineering,” she says.
At the heart of Dow’s success has always been her passion for giving young people the same opportunities she had and a desire to get rid of labels such as traditional or non-traditional, instead putting all the options in front of young people and letting them make an informed choice.
And it was through this belief that MerseySTEM was born. After taking some time out of work to have children Dow decided to seize the opportunity and create a company that, working with the government funded national organisation STEMNET as its contract holder in the Liverpool city region, would help promote engagement between industry and education.
“I’ve been a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) ambassador since I was 17, going into schools and talking about my career path,” she says. “And I’d worked with STEMNET for a long time, so when that government contract came up I thought I’d have a go.”
STEMNET runs three national programmes; the Schools STEM Advisory Network, the STEM Ambassador programme and the STEM Clubs programme. The programmes are all free to state-funded secondary schools but are also available, in some capacity, to other sectors. MerseySTEM is the delivery partner in Merseyside, Cheshire and Warrington.
“There is a need for more things for our young people to be exposed to,” says Dow. “We’re almost a facilitator of all sorts of other people doing amazing stuff.”
“In the Liverpool City Region at the moment there’s a skill gap we need to fill. We’ve got to equip our young people for that.”
While it would have been possible to set up MerseySTEM as a not-for-profit firm, Dow says making it a limited company has helped it to earn a degree of respect and mutual appreciation from the business community.
And it is businesses who will ultimately benefit from the organisation as Dow and her team work with partners to ensure the workforce of tomorrow is equipped with the qualifications and, more importantly, skills they’ll need.
“In the Liverpool City Region at the moment there’s a skills gap we need to fill,” says Dow. “We’ve got to equip our young people for that. We should do that by inspiring them and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
A big focus for the organisation going forward is The Big Bang North West, an interactive science and technology event which aims to inspire and enthrall young people from across the region.
Having had the regional contract for the event for two years (during which time membership at the main show and its fringe events soared from just over 2,000 to just over 9,000), Dow says this year’s is set to be the biggest yet. The MerseySTEM team have plans to engage with a massive 12,000 youngsters through The Big Bang 2016, including having 6,000 at the main event at Exhibition Centre Liverpool in July.
“The Big Bang is our flagship event and I absolutely love it,” says Dow. “But it’s not the answer to the skills gap, it’s part of the answer. We need to be engaging young people on lots of different levels; in school, outside of school, through parents’ evenings. The Big Bang is something we can hang our hat on and businesses and other organisations can get involved with.”
With plans to grow the organisation further, including recruiting more employees to the eight-strong MerseySTEM team, Dow is understandably proud of how far she’s come.
“I’ve had a fantastic career, I’ve spoken at the House of Commons and the House of Lords, I’ve sat on different steering groups and I’ve met the Prime Minister,” she says. “I was nominated Woman of the Year. What I’ve found generally is men are really good at shouting about their achievements whereas we’re not quite as good at that. It’s ok to say I’ve been quite successful.”
One thinks, in Dow’s case, “quite successful” is something of an understatement.