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Role Models: Helping Ethnic Minority Engineering Students Become Practicing Engineers

Role Models: Helping Ethnic Minority Engineering Students Become Practicing Engineers

By Ina Colombo-Youla, Ph.D.; Nike Folayan, Ph.D.; Catarina Marques, Ph.D.

From Insights Newsletter, July 2021

Ethnic minority representation in engineering professions is disproportionately low when compared to the number of ethnic minorities who receive engineering degrees in the United Kingdom. To help improve this trend, we have found that role models are crucial in helping ethnic minorities choose HVAC&R engineering as a career.

According to the EngineeringUK’s 2020 report, 9% of the UK’s engineers are from black or other ethnic minority backgrounds, while those from the same backgrounds make up an average of 29.9% of engineering university graduates.1 In the U.S.,2 of those individuals who earn bachelor’s degrees in engineering, 10.8% are Asian, 10.4% Hispanic/Latino, 3.9% Black/African American, 0.3% American/Alaska Native and 0.1% Native Hawaiian. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics3 reports that of those individuals who are engineers, 13.6% are Asian, 10.6% Hispanic/Latino and 6% Black/African American.

The Importance of Role Models

The order of influence suggests access to role models is the most significant factor in determining career choices for ethnic minority young people. The Association for Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers (AFBE-UK) explored the topic of role models in a 2019 research paper that focused on ethnicity in the engineering industry—particularly looking at the influence of role models in young pupils’ career decisions.4 The research suggests access to role models is a significant factor in determining career choices. Role models and mentors can grant students access to the engineering industry, which can increase students’ interests and help them better understand the field.

Learning through creative activities and being supported by positive role models from their own or similar communities, family and networks can significantly influence a young person’s educational experience and career decision, according to the research. A survey administered during the study4 confirmed these key influences do not affect young people who are from ethnic minorities exclusively but apply to all young people. Young people and their parents need to understand the pathways toward careers in engineering. Exposure to role models is key in illustrating these possibilities.

The AFBE-UK “Making Engineering Hot” campaign is an example of successfully stimulating young people from ethnic minority backgrounds. With the collaboration of family, teachers and ethnic minority role models who work in the engineering industry, young ethnic minorities were inspired to choose engineering careers.4

Access to Role Models 

One way young engineers, especially those who are from ethnic minority backgrounds, can find role models is via networking. Catarina Marques, Ph.D., and Ina Colombo-Youla, Ph.D., contributing authors of this article, have worked with the Institute of Refrigeration U.K. (IOR) to organize and lead the Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning (RAC) Young Engineers Network to bring together students and young engineers who are interested in HVAC&R and help them build their professional network.

Over the last 10 years during IIR congresses, Catarina and Ina have organized student and young researchers networking events where students meet senior representatives from the industry and leading academics. These events help students learn about the HVAC&R industry and the prerequisites for training and education. Students and young researchers can also benefit from the advice and professional experience of experts in the field and learn about job vacancies, which can lead to roles in the sector.

Young graduates and engineers, particularly from ethnic minority backgrounds, can struggle finding job opportunities at the beginning of their careers because often they do not have a sufficient network of contacts. Networking events where students and engineers can meet industry representatives and academics are vital and help facilitate partnerships and sponsorships.

Connecting students and professionals can be done through conferences, round tables, testimonials, networking events, interview simulations and career discovery events. It is also possible for students and young engineers to volunteer in engineering programs and workshops, including giving their time to help in association projects. During these programs, they can meet and shadow experienced engineers who can become role models and raise their professional aspirations.

How to Be a Good Role Model 

A good role model is someone young people can easily relate to. When a younger person learns from an engineer and understands what the pathways and possibilities are within engineering, they can be inspired to become an engineer as well.4 Sharing similarities (such as ethnic background, disability, sexual orientation, educational background or hometown/country) can help role models and younger people more easily relate and connect with each other. For example, role models could discuss how they overcame obstacles to become an engineer. Role models help make the engineering profession more accessible.

To be a good role model, the engineer should consider being open about and proud of their background, their ethnicity and where they come from. Ideally, a role model should be charismatic, open, friendly and happy in their engineering career choice.

About the Authors:

Ina Colombo-Youla, Ph.D., is the IIR deputy director general, AFBE-UK head of research, secretary of the IIR Working Group on Careers in Refrigeration (CaRe) and lives in Paris.

Nike Folayan, Ph.D., is the co-founder and chair of the Association for Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers (AFBE-UK) and lives in the U.K.

Catarina Marques, Ph.D., is the president of the IIR Working Group on Careers in Refrigeration (CaRe) and lives in the U.K.


  1. EngineeringUK. 2020. “Engineering UK 2020: Educational Pathways Into Engineering,” Page 102. EngineeringUK.
  2. National Science Foundation (NSF). 2016. National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES), Bachelor's degrees earned, by ethnicity, race, and citizenship.
  3. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). 2020. Household data annual averages.
  4. Colombo, I., R. Mckenzie-Schoetz, O. Folayan, N. Folayan. 2019. “The influence of role models on the sustainability of the engineering profession in the UK: a case study.” ASHRAE Transactions 125, Part 2:257-263.