Thirty years ago, when I was struggling to find work as a chemical engineer, I was used as a case study in a newspaper article about the barriers facing black graduates. Back then we were being told industry was crying out for engineers, so I and many of my black colleagues on similar courses, with good grades, and with similar jobs-market difficulties, couldn’t understand why the industry didn’t seem to want us.

Fast-forward 30 years, and it seems nothing’s changed. This week a report by the Royal Academy of Engineering has revealed that black and minority ethnic graduates are twice as likely to be underemployed two years after finishing their studies than their white counterparts are – and that’s despite attending similar universities and achieving similar grades.

In fact, it found that being in an ethnic minority was a bigger obstacle to employment than any other factor they considered – including degree classification, attending a less prestigious university, or gender.

Despite my experiences, this came as a shock. I actually thought things were getting better. When I graduated, in 1987, the world was quite a different place. Diversity had not entered the mainstream conversation. It was clear there was inequality, but no one seemed to care. I saw many opportunities pass by that I felt I was more than qualified for. I remember one excruciating meeting at which my interviewer, despite knowing my qualifications and experience before inviting me along, barely asked me a question. He knew my gender in advance; he wouldn’t have known my race. Clearly, he felt he was wasting his time; I wish he hadn’t wasted mine.

I eventually became a chemical industry consultant, and thankfully such incidents are now rare. But talking to younger engineers, I learn that a sense of unconscious bias appears to persist.

The main problem is that engineering still lags behind other traditional professions, such as law and medicine, which over the years have introduced significant and meaningful initiatives to raise the level of diversity. Inequality in these professions has regularly been flagged up in the media, and they have been heavily criticised over arcane practices. Engineering has not been exposed to the same level of scrutiny. Most have heard the news stories of black lawyers struggling to get into the bar, but engineering stories are rarer.

Most people are unaware of what professional engineers even do (no, we’re not mechanics). Although engineering touches every part of our lives, the profession operates quietly, out of the public eye.

One recent black engineering graduate told me that during the interview process he felt there was an underlying sense on the selection panel of “Will he fit in here?” – and that, after many rejections, keeping motivated was hard.

Even when black graduates do get their foot in the front door, their career progression can be slow. A chartered civil engineer who’s worked on some high-profile construction projects tells me that black engineers tend not to be offered the type of work that could further their careers; there are limited opportunities to lead projects and manage teams to develop the skills and experience needed for senior roles. As a result, when opportunities do arise, they are overlooked. And with relatively few minority engineers reaching positions of influence within their organisations, there is even less chance for promoting the cause of diversity and tackling institutional inertia.

There has been a huge push in recent years to take on sexism in the industry and promote science, technology, engineering and maths careers for women. But ethnicity has never been part of any discussion.

In my years working in the European chemical industry, and having attended countless meetings, I can’t recall seeing another person of colour.

The Royal Academy of Engineering now runs a programme tasked with increasing diversity and inclusion across professional engineering institutions. This offers some hope, as there are many such organisations (some of which are relatively small) covering different engineering specialities, and I doubt whether the issue of diversity is high on the agenda for any of them. So the academy could help create a platform for change.

However, these initiatives will count for little if they don’t filter down to the engineering companies themselves. Their practices need to change regarding how they recruit graduates, and how they develop and support black and minority ethnic engineers once employed. This has to happen soon – because I don’t want to be reading yet another article about this in 30 years’ time.

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