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Why are engineering firms struggling to recruit graduates?

Reports of a graduate engineer shortage are common yet competition for jobs remains fierce. Our roundtable panel proposed some potential solutions to the industry’s graduate problem.

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The Engineer’s graduate skills panel picked apart the industry’s recruitment problem.

Britain is being held back by a major shortage of science and engineering students, or so we are told on what seems like an increasingly frequent basis. Yet ask most recent graduates whether they’ve found it easy to get a job in engineering and they’ll probably tell you that competition is fierce. To explore what’s really going on in graduate recruitment and to try to identify some possible solutions, The Engineer convened a roundtable panel from across the engineering community. The discussion covered the reasons behind the skills mismatch what can be done to address it, but began with an examination of how widespread the problem actually is.

The picture that quickly emerged was of an uneven jobs market, in which large, well-known firms have both the natural pull and the marketing budgets to attract huge numbers of applications, leading many graduates to end up fighting over the same few jobs. The smaller companies, meanwhile, especially those in more rural locations and less well-understood product areas, struggle to get enough applicants just to fill their roles, let alone compete for the best engineers. ‘It’s a huge problem,’ said Bob Gregory, training manager for medium-sized precision manufacturer HepcoMotion. ‘We are in a fairly rural and remote part of Devon and there’s a lot of reluctance among graduates to relocate to where we are.’

The problem is even more severe when it comes to more specialised skills such as nuclear engineering, where the problem also starts to affect the larger firms. Geoff McFarland, group engineering director of Renishaw, explained how the company was forced to divest its acquired MRI equipment division after failing to find people with the right expertise to take it forward. ‘The only ones available were from overseas,’ he said.

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Source: Airbus

Airbus is among the big firms with the budgets to reach out to graduates - but SMEs struggle for publicity.

However, despite a few comments about graduates missing certain technical skills and the difficulty SMEs have in offering additional training, there was a general consensus that the skills issue was more about quantity than quality of candidates and an acceptance that young people at the start of their careers would inevitably be inexperienced. ‘The ones that we do get are of high quality and they learn quickly,’ said Gregory. ‘We don’t expect them to come to us with a good working knowledge of SolidWorks or any other 3D modelling software. It’s merely a supply problem.’

In fact, the number of science and engineering graduates is low enough to worry even the biggest firms, which are currently able to fill their vacancies without trouble but are acutely aware of the competition from other sectors. ‘We do anticipate that with the economy strengthening we will have more challenges,’ said Richard Hamer, education director for BAE Systems. ‘When the City is demanding more numbers we’ll find more competition for graduates.’

Sector competition

So why aren’t more people entering the engineering profession? One key suggestion was that students don’t really understand the full range of opportunities available in the sector. ‘Engineering’s competing with so many other pulls from sectors that are a lot more vocal,’ said Keith Lewis, managing director of engineering recruitment agency Matchtech. ‘People within engineering are very poor at promoting it and making lots of noise about it.’ It’s a particular problem for SMEs, he added, which tend to operate in niche areas but also have smaller marketing and recruitment budgets. ‘Companies that can afford to are looking at where those people might be coming from and setting up small offices to capture them. SMEs can’t afford to do that.’

Rhys Morgan, director of engineering and education at the Royal Academy of Engineering, agreed that engineering firms weren’t selling themselves well enough compared to other employers that target engineering graduates, such as financial and professional service firms. ‘The major [engineering] employers only go to the top 10-to-15 universities,’ he said. ‘All the banks and all the accountancy firms are very visible on all the campuses and they make it very attractive for engineering graduates to think “I’ll go there”.’

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‘The major [engineering] employers only go to the top 10-to-15 universities,’ said Rhys Morgan (centre) of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

However, there is also a lack of understanding of what even the better-known companies actually do, which doesn’t just put people off from applying but also disadvantages those who do wish to stay in the sector. ‘If people don’t know which area of engineering they want to go into, they won’t know which companies to apply to and what to put in their applications,’ said Rosie Tomlinson, a graduate mission systems engineer for Airbus Defence and Space (formerly Astrium). ‘Some people apply for the top 10 companies, they don’t get a job so they give up.’

The wider perception of engineering may also have an impact. The panel had little support for the idea that people were put off by ‘low’ pay, given that engineering graduate jobs tended to offer considerably more than the average starting salary of £20,000, but agreed this fact wasn’t always well conveyed. ‘There’s a lot more we could do to sell that,’ said Hamer. ‘Sometimes in the press they exaggerate the small number of graduates who get jobs at Goldman Sachs earning £60,000 but the number who do that is minute. Whereas in our sector there are schemes where you can earn £30,000 or more as a starting graduate.’

There was also a recognition that more could be done to promote the possibilities for career development. ‘As careers progress the number of senior engineers with that title starts to diminish and they go into other roles: the fact that they’re engineers starts being lost,’ said John Mitchell, director of the integrated engineering programme at University College London.

Industry solutions

Aside from increased marketing, one way to increase graduates’ awareness of engineering career options may be to widen the availability and take-up of industrial placements, which only a minority of students undertake. Mitchell said universities also had a role in helping promote careers at SMEs. ‘We’ve got very good relationships with the sorts of people who already have very well-developed schemes for attracting graduates but how we can help the smaller companies? A lot of the onus has been on supporting students if they make the first move but actually I’m not sure we’ve stepped up to the mark to put in enough real support.’

Another possibility would be for the larger firms to work more closely with their SME suppliers. Hamer said the aerospace industry was already looking at how big companies could pass on surplus job applicants. ‘We’ve got an oversupply of candidates: why not train more of them — with government money — and then provide them to small companies?’ Bob Gregory of HepcoMotion agreed it was an idea he would like to explore. ‘A lot of our customers are actually universities and it would supply an ideal network for that,’ he said.

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‘We’ve got an oversupply of candidates: why not train more of them and then provide them to small companies,’ said Richard Hamer (centre) of BAE Systems.

However, even if all these issues were addressed and 100 per cent of engineering graduates went into industry (a questionable aim in itself), we still wouldn’t have addressed the skills shortage we’re told companies are facing. In short, we need more engineering students. And this can’t be addressed just by engaging more with young people, said Morgan. ‘Universities are almost at capacity,’ he said. ‘So even if we did get more students coming through to study STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] subjects, we’re not going to have the capacity. There’s a real timebomb coming up.’

Given the current state of public finances, one solution may be a greater roll-out of higher apprenticeships, which all the employers on the panel already use. These offer a work-based route to a degree through part-time, employer-supported study and could be particularly useful to those employers not located near big university cities or that have very specific skill requirements. ‘If we’ve taken on someone who’s been through that programme they’re actually more likely to stay with us than jump ship,’ said Renishaw’s Geoff McFarland. ‘Whereas engineers who’ve studied in, say, Newcastle and join us in Gloucestershire have already moved once and there’s nothing to stop them moving again.’

However, the panel concluded that if the government was serious about addressing the skills issue, it needed to help universities invest the necessary money to expand. ‘We need more students to recognise that if they’re doing an engineering degree there’s a really interesting, exciting, creative, design-focused valuable lifelong career in engineering for them that they’ll be so stimulated by, much more so than working in the financial sector,’ said Morgan. ‘But we also need to be very clear to government that we need it to invest in engineering higher education to increase capacity.’

The Participants

Bob Gregory, training manager, HepcoMotion

Richard Hamer, education director, BAE Systems

Keith Lewis, managing director, Matchtech

Geoff McFarland, group engineering director, Renishaw

John Mitchell, director of the integrated engineering programme, University College London

Rhys Morgan, director of engineering and education, Royal Academy of Engineering

Rosie Tomlinson, graduate mission systems engineer, Airbus Defence and Space


Readers' comments (54)

  • I keep hearing the posturing of all the quango's about the lack of available Graduate Engineers, but i can tell you from first hand experience that there are Graduates out there, but Companies are not willing to take the time to train. My son has a B.Eng in Civil Engineering & although he is in work he is not working in the Civil environment as he cannot get work in that area. He has stated that he is willing to travel/relocate for work so has shown a flexibility in his outlook. With all the infrastructure Projects that we hear about, surely there is a opening for a Graduate Trainee. Please tell me were he can get a position in his field if the position are available, because he has sent hundreds of CV'c to Hundreds of Companies & Agencies without success. He only needs one position, so if all the noise from all the apparent institutions he must be able to find a suitable position. If you know of one please advise.

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  • I am only a couple of years removed from the graduate job hunt (and admittedly I graduated at the worst point in the recession) but finding a job was not easy at all.

    There were only a couple of the big companies that I was interested in, so apart from those I focused my search on SMEs. What I quickly found was that many had practically no visibility. They never appeared at recruitment fairs, or appeared on job boards. Indeed, many did not even recruit directly, relying more on agencies for that. These were not household names, so unless I knew about them before hand I rarely discovered them on my own.

    This put the onus on recruitment agencies who varied from poor to dire. They seemed to have very little concept of what the jobs they were recruiting for entailed and what skills were needed.

    The companies themselves did not immediately entice me either. Many were in remote locations with poor/non-existent transport links. Many of them were also single product companies, which offered little room for new product development or growth. Many freely admitted that training would be limited and it was fully up to the individual to sort out these sorts of things (a bit daunting for a fresh graduate). To add to that, most seemed to be looking for more experienced engineers with a much more specific skillset. Someone who could "hit the ground running". I got rejected for many roles due to lack of experience.

    It all became quite disheartening. Struggling to find a job when the press were screaming out about the lack of engineers does make you feel like there is something glaringly wrong/unsuitable about yourself.

    Eventually I did find a place with a larger company (that I had never heard of), but the search was not easy. That needs to be changed.

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  • Two points;
    1. It is important to interest people in engineering at an early stage in their lives. Primary and secondary school teachers should be helped to understand that engineering advances all aspects of mankind's material wellbeing and be encouraged to introduce engineering references into day to day activities with pupils.
    2. For an SME to be able to recruit high class graduates it must show that a career path exists for them.

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  • Levels of pay in engineering are also costing companies staff. I have been to interviews in the past where the interviewer has ended by saying he can't match what I am already earning.

    Why would I move to a job that is lower paying? Even today, I still see jobs being advertised with pay 5K lower than what I was earning 5+ years ago.

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  • It was very difficult to find a job after graduation. I know many that didn't. In the end I took an opportunity to do some more education. This was sponsored and I left this into a job. Now i'm experienced I think finding a job is easier.

    Many graduates don't enter engineering and many don't stay after doing so. It is a big issue.

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  • A problem with taking on graduates is quality. Many degrees just do not deserve the title. Even a good MEng in terms of technical depth is not as strong as the level of achievement we used to get at the end of the second year in a BSc. Ask a mech grad about some simple gear geometry. I have come across people with good MEngs that have done no complex numbers, yet have A level maths (complex numbers started at O level for us). This goes back all the way to primary school where true comparisons are hard- but consider that we have had in recent years some primary schools starting once again to teach times tables up to 12. Furthermore, there's been serious talk of taking calculus out of A level physics, thereby unquestionably relegating it to O level standard. Also, thirty yeas ago, for a degree to be accredited by the IMechE, a period of Craft Training was required.

    Oh, and it's not the graduates' fault- the failure of our education system and the Institutes is the problem.

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  • Has anyone actually gone through the numbers of graduates and jobs?

    There are so many different messages in the media. For instance, firms are struggling to find enough graduates yet they get 10 applying for each available position.

    What are the number of people graduating with an engineering degree and how many jobs are available? For an industry based on numbers and facts, there has just been conjecture and thoughts used on this subject

    From personal experience I can tell you that it is not unusual to have a double figure number of applications rejected before getting close to a job offer. It took me a year after getting an Accredited Degree from one of the top engineering universities in the country before I ended up with a job offer

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  • This is much more than a problem with the industry, it is a problem with society and their ignorance. When I was young we had toys such as Lego or Meccano which encouraged logical thought and practical assembly, now its all computers. Older toys created logical thinking and practical skills as a combine, now a computer has resolved these issues hypothetically, and here is the major problem.

    Hypothesis is fine to a point, but come the practicalities and the hypothesis doesn't work when it comes to the practicalities. Engineering is all about making the hypothesis a practicality and a reality.

    This translates to education, the current system of education is so target focused that it focuses on targets rather than providing the foundation skills engineering requires. When a child is interested it is knocked out of them in favour of a school hitting a target. Parental ability also has a part to play as fewer people repair things in favour of "getting a man in" to do such works. Now we have lost a parent who may do more mundane, but practical elements such as repairing or servicing their own vehicle as a prime example, and children not being involved with these practical elements.

    Now we have lost a lot of the foundation skills and children have no interest or inclination towards engineering.

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  • Historically, it has always been more profitable for employer interests to falsely allege a "shortage" than to improve wages and working conditions. The elites that reap most of the firm's economic benefits have seen their total compensation climb for the past several decades while many employees have seen meager increases that fail to match inflation. Search by title in the IEEE Spectrum for "The STEM Crisis Is a Myth"
    - Forget the dire predictions of a looming shortfall of scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians
    By Robert N. Charette
    Posted 30 Aug 2013 | 17:47 GMT to learn how employer interests have been raising the same false claims for almost a century. To understand the benefits for the economic elites, please search by title for the PDF version of, "How Record Immigration Levels Robbed American High-Tech Workers of $10 Trillion." The same problem looms large in the U.K.

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  • My daughter is just about to do finals in engineering. The job market is a nightmare. The media and everyone told her that there are loads of jobs out there, but trying to find them is difficult. The recruitment firms are vague about what the job actually is, jobs are left up even afer they have gone, graduate schemes have a long winded application process at a time when they are trying to do final projects and revise ( if you apply for five jobs that involves up to 10 days out on assessment days, five days on interviews, five days on telephone interviews- and then you may not hear for two months, by which time other schemes have closed) There are very few graduate schemes and many want experience which the graduates simply do not have. If you want engineers, you ahve to do more to help the graduates. By the way-anyone want a female mechanical graduate who specialised in renewables?

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