Colleges and schools must encourage more women into engineering to ensure a healthy future for the industry, states a report.
There has been a "large fall" in the number of learners taking Higher National engineering courses and some colleges have ditched the subject in favour of media and music courses, because they found it "too challenging" to attract enough students, HMIE said in the report published last week.
Yet engineering remains "very important" to Scotland and more needs to be done to boost the small number of women who choose it as a career - especially since recruitment and retention of students are "issues of concern for most engineering departments".
Figures from the Scottish Funding Council for 2005-06 showed that, for engineering subjects, only 16 per cent of learners at FE level and 4 per cent at HE level were women - and a large proportion of those on FE courses were girls on short programmes attending college from school. These "persistently low" numbers were in spite of concerted attempts to encourage more women into engineering, the inspectors said.
Colleges, meanwhile, should work with schools to improve the quality of information about engineering available to potential learners, including specific advice about opportunities for women.
Few engineering students canvassed for the report found that information provided at school had been helpful. It seemed more likely that they had chosen their career because a family member was an engineer, or because local employment opportunities were good or they had an interest in the subject in the first place.
Peter Hughes, chief executive of Scottish Engineering, said that, although the figures seemed low, there were more women entering engineering than was once the case.
He was confident that the numbers would continue to grow as efforts to get girls interested in the profession began to pay off.
"That's something we've been working on for some years now," he said. "The good news is that we're having success. It's an area that girls did not go into at all in the past."
The report outlines a number of difficulties and failings in college engineering departments. It identifies a "significant challenge" for colleges that offer engineering courses in attracting well-qualified staff and providing high-quality equipment. In many cases, staff and learners did not make good enough use of ICT.
But the report found reasons to be positive. While total engineering provision across the sector had declined in recent years, it had grown in a few colleges. More than a third of colleges derived at least 10 per cent of their teaching activity from engineering programmes last year.
Specific subject areas, such as electronic engineering, have declined, but other subjects, such as motor vehicle engineering, have remained strong or were growing.
Despite the large fall in learners taking Higher National engineering programmes in the past four years, there has been steady growth in the number of modern apprenticeships over the same period (a "very small proportion" is female).
Colleges tend to be good at meeting local and national employment needs, and responsive to the changing demands of learners and employers. Most learners have a "good learning experience", while there were good levels of retention on apprenticeship programmes.
There was a "strong commitment" by many colleges to providing engineering courses, while a few were making "significant investment" in engineering resources.
Dr Hughes said most of the action called for in the HMIE report was under way.