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The UK engineering skills shortage: true or false?

13 September 2011

Fewer than half of graduates who leave university with a degree in engineering are working within the field six months later, according to statistics presented to the British Educational Research Association’s (BERA's) annual conference earlier this month. The figures reveal that around 20 per cent of those with engineering degrees end up in unrelated graduate jobs, while a further 24 per cent find work in sectors of the economy that don’t even require a higher education qualification.

The figures were presented by Professor Emma Smith of the University of Birmingham who says they undermine claims that the country’s businesses are facing a shortage of well-qualified people with science and technology degrees. “It is astonishing, in the light of claims of science graduate shortages, that so few new graduates go into related employment,” she told conference delegates, citing a 2008 CBI survey which reported a third of respondents suffering relevant skills shortages.

In 2009, the Council for Industry and Higher Education stated: “We cannot stress too forcibly our concern at the critical shortage of graduates and postgraduates with STEM capabilities.” However, Professor Smith’s analysis used figures from the Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA), which are based on a survey of what graduates were doing six months after finishing university.

For engineering science, the latest figures (2009) showed that 46.4 per cent of graduates were working in fields directly related to their degree, such as engineering per se (38 per cent) or engineering-related IT (five per cent). Professor Smith’s paper focused on engineering, but separate data for 2008 from the same annual survey suggest the rate of physics and chemistry graduates taking up work in related fields within six months of graduating is around 55 per cent.

Professor Smith said the high numbers of engineering graduates taking jobs not requiring graduate-level qualifications – 12 per cent were working in sales and five per cent in “elementary administration and service” – suggested there was “not a ready supply of engineering jobs for all of them”.

“Just under a quarter of newly-qualified engineers report every year that they are working in what are considered to be non-graduate jobs, including unskilled and routine employment, such as being cashiers and waiters,” she said. “Around 10 per cent are in general management and a further 10 per cent are classified as ‘other’. The figures suggest it is not easy or automatic for qualified engineers to get related employment in the UK, despite the purported shortages.

“Perhaps, because of recent initiatives, there seem to be too many people studying science for the labour market to cope with, or perhaps graduates are no longer of sufficient quality. It is more likely, however, that all of these scientists are without relevant employment every year because the shortage thesis is wrong and there are no jobs waiting for all of them, or because they are ‘dropping out’ having learned that they do not enjoy their subject areas.”

There have been huge efforts in recent decades to increase the supply of science graduates, with an estimated 470 separate projects to attract more young people into STEM subjects. But Professor Smith argues that what is needed now is more research into the real demand of UK STEM businesses for new recruits.

Not surprisingly, the UK's professional engineering community has bristled at these claims. Speaking on behalf of the profession-wide Education for Engineering (E4E) policy group, Royal Academy of Engineering chief executive, Philip Greenish said employers recruit engineers from wherever they can in a global marketplace. “Only a proportion will be fresh UK graduates. To infer that employers don't know their own workforce needs when they identify a shortage of engineers, and to do this based on data that only considers a subset of recruits is just plain wrong"

Paul Jackson, chief executive of EngineeringUK believes the situation is a lot more “nuanced” than Professor Smith and her co-workers suggest. “Skills shortages do exist in particular areas, notably in power engineering, petrochemicals, systems engineering and advanced manufacturing," he said. "Talented students who have the potential to be our future graduate engineers must not be put off by the headline-grabbing statistics taken from this research, rather than looking at the detail of the situation. The key message from this research is the challenge to the engineering community to ensure that our degree programmes continue to meet the future needs of industry."

Mr Jackson says the reason that government is so focused on engineering and science, and has tried to preserve funding in these areas, is because they are critical both to rebalancing the economy and creating an infrastructure fit for the future. “Between them the engineering and manufacturing sectors generate 25% of UK turnover,” he says. “The future lies in an innovation economy, based on new industries such as green energy, nanotechnology and plastic electronics, where many of the key advances have been made in Britain."

Research by the engineering profession shows that almost nine in ten engineering graduates who graduated in 2010 were either in (full or part time) work or had opted to undertake further study. According to the HESA Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey, the mean average salary of engineering and technology graduates six months after graduating is 11 per cent more than the mean average salary across all degree subjects.

The Royal Academy of Engineering cites additional statistics from the same HESA data that indicate 56.9 per cent of engineering and technology graduates being in full-time employment six months after graduating, compared with 53.1 per cent of all graduates. And some 61.2 per cent of engineering and technology first degree graduates who were employed took up an engineering related role. Moreover, 62.3 per cent of engineering and technology first degree graduates who went into employment went to work for an employer whose primary activity was engineering and technology.

Les Hunt


We would like to thank all the readers who have responded to this article and have included a selection of their comments below. Please feel free to respond with your own remarks on this subject.

From Mr Ian Townsend:

UK engineering salaries seem to be well below international levels which also suggests there is adequate supply.

From Mr Andrew Stribley:

There is a skills shortage. But too few companies are training under grads or graduates.

From Mr Bill Watson:

Are potential employers complaining of a shortage of graduates or a shortage of experienced graduates? Too many I feel would rather wait forever for someone with the experience they require rather than train up young graduates.

From Mr Tony Thurgood:

It is the same old problem  -  Engineering pay and career prospects are, and always has been, poor and slow when viewed in relation to finance and other career paths.
Most engineering employers have no idea how to sell themselves and usually are asking for way too much at the interview stages from inexperienced graduates.
They also do not do enough in the way of internships and in-course work experience to ensure that when the students attain their quals they still wish to remain in the industry. It does not have enough of the buzz and fizz that young people want and it simply does not fire up imaginations and expectations.
Maybe I am simply seeing it from someone who is supposed to be retired but still fells fired up even if I am continuously being disappointed by the companies that I have to work for and seek employment from,

From Mr Lee Trayford:

This is an issue not only for our engineering graduates, but reflects all university disciplines and other further education programs. Our students follow a given path of education without any real information on actual job prospects at the end of the course.
They are sold a dream of employment and with it forthcoming wealth, and eagerly they sign up and commit themselves.
In reality, our university are full of courses that are oversubscribed, and once completed offer the bearer minimal advantage in the job market.
Our universities should lead from the front and working more closely with industry for in the courses they offer.
And rather than catering to popular student demand, they could offer real courses for the real job market.
Possibly, and making a 1 year internship part of a degree that must be completed.
Or offering some sort of graduate training schemes for tomorrows engineers

From Mr Derek Woodrow:

After 40 years in Industry, I agree with you, we have a skills shortage in many key areas of Engineering, not least Toolmakers.
Also what does the Government do to encourage manufacturing, we have some of the best brains in the world, but we don't support them.
The only good think that I have seen of late is TATA, they have turned round Corus in very difficult times, turned in a profit at Jag/Landrover a thing that Ford never did and now they commit £400m to new engine plant.

From Mr John Bowles:

This is probably, in part, as a result of employers exaggerating the shortage in order to flood the market with engineers from abroad to bring salaries down.
Also the demise of the old Polytechnics, which (especially in engineering) had a close relationship with employers and customized the skills and qualifications they taught to suit the needs of industry. Whereas Universities only teach academic subjects by people who have not had to solve problems in the real world .
Looking at the responses from employers above (who don’t agree with the article), they seem to be calling for real skilled engineers like Toolmakers (they don’t teach that in University) these skills are normally called vocational by academics and are down valued where in fact they should be valued are a lot higher than University degrees because they have real skill, expertise and knowledge in solving real problems and are probably more academically challenging than University degrees. The brightest students should be encouraged to train in these areas rather than the University conveyor belt degrees. The old Engineering ONC and HNC were more challenging than the degrees being taught now.

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