Friday, 22 August 2014
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Young people want more than just money (though it helps)

It’s great being an engineer. That’s the belief of the vast majority of students and recent graduates considering an engineering career who took part in a recent survey. Over 80 per cent of those still studying were happy with their course while over 90 per cent of graduates see themselves staying in the profession long term.

But things aren’t as rosy as this suggests. Surveys such as this one, conducted by GTI Media, should always be taken with a pinch of salt: they represent a small, self-selecting sample of people and ignore those who have already given up on engineering.

We’re constantly told that the UK needs more science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) graduates – 40,000 extra a year according to the Social Market Foundation. And figures in the most recent Engineering UK report show around one third of engineering and technology graduates obtain work unrelated to their degrees. So it makes sense that keeping more people in the industry has to be part of the strategy of addressing the skills shortage.

The question is what to do about it. The obvious answer many will immediately shout is higher salaries. But it’s not as simple as that. Of students considering a career outside engineering, 44 per cent said the potential to earn more elsewhere was a factor. But this was second to the potential to do more interesting or fulfilling work (55 per cent).

Compared to students considering careers in banking, accountancy, IT and law, those looking at engineering were the least likely to be influenced by money and had the lowest salary expectations. Instead, they were the most likely to be motivated by the profession’s contribution to society. And, surprisingly, they were the least likely to be tempted into another sector.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, those interested in banking were the most likely to be motivated by money (although they were also the most likely to take a job in another industry). Realistically, engineering firms will never be able to offer graduates City-level salaries because of the more long-term nature of their business. So targeting those for whom money is most important seems like something of a waste of time.

That’s not to say higher salaries wouldn’t make a difference. And as one surveyed student put it, there’s little clarity or consistency on what a “competitive” starting wage is. But perhaps most people just aren’t that materialistic and we’d be better combining monetary reward with greater outreach to students, to show and explain to them how rewarding and intellectually stimulating engineering can be.

The other problem that emerges from the survey is that over a quarter of students applying for jobs are not confident they will find one. Part of this is probably due to the high levels of graduate unemployment in general. Still, figures in the Engineering UK report show that engineering and technology graduates are slightly more likely to be out of work or further training than the average for all degree subjects (10.9 per cent compared to 9.2 per cent). And things are even worse for the computer science graduates who are apparently in such demand (14.6 per cent).

Ask the students what the obstacles to getting a job are, and by far the most common responses are the lack of opportunities and the difficulty of obtaining work experience. If the engineering industry wants to retain higher numbers of graduates it must find a way to hold their interest even at times when jobs aren’t plentiful. More and better internship programmes could be a way to do this, especially if they started targeting students from a younger age.

You don’t have to look far to find anecdotes of young engineers not being prepared for the world of work. And one comment pulled out of the survey highlighted the extra difficulty for first-year students in securing placements. Perhaps building stronger relationships with students over the course of their degrees, using open days and pre-internships or ‘spring weeks’ such as the finance sector does, will make young people more likely to hold out for an engineering job once their studies are over.

Of course, the other side of the argument is the need for better skilled graduates, an issue often brought up by industry. Over 60 per cent of graduates surveyed felt their course only prepared them “quite well” for work and just under 50 per cent felt they had limited preparation in terms of technical skills.

But perhaps this is another area where greater interaction with engineering firms over the course of a degree could help. If industry wants more and better employees, it needs to take a greater role in helping train and attract them.


Readers' comments (12)

  • I could not agree more about the need for industry to engage students throughout their degree, or even before, in order to both inspire and retain talent.

    In my experience, it is often employers that do not offer experience through placement schemes or internships that struggle the most to attract the best talent.

    It is also key to look beyond degree specialisms and more towards a general aptitude for problem solving when seeking engineering talent. A strong Aerospace student will be able to pick up the Automotive knowledge required in post; all graduates will have to learn a significant quantity of technical knowledge and processes specific to their employer regardless of their degree subject.

    This links to a previous article about the automotive industry that I contributed to:
    http://www.theengineer.co.uk/channels/skills-and-careers/in-depth/career-opportunities-in-the-uk-automotive-sector/1014586.article

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  • With an Apprenticeship behind me and a few years shop floor experience under my belt I wanted to progress & spent 2 years full time studying for a HND in Mechanical/Manufacturing Engineering. Unable to stand an Engineering career due to "lack of experience" I returned to the shop floor & completed a BSC in Engineering only to keep butting up against the same "lack of experience". After an unhappy stint in Internal Technical Sales I moved my career into Education & Training, where, god willing, I shall stay till I retire.
    I see the same problems now in Engineering that I experienced 20 years ago & it gives me no real faith in the sector. If we want good engineers we need to nurture, train, support & encourage them.

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  • If we really wish to retain Engineers graduating from various universities then very strong interaction between universities and industries is a must. Various industries can visit engineering colleges/universities and identify students for their organisation right from second year and orient them towards their engineering profession. They can be paid a stipend.

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  • The solution is perhaps 4 fold:-

    We need more STEM subject graduates which means we need:-

    1) More properly qualified STEM teachers in school who are STEM graduates to generate interest in STEM subjects and teach them to GCSE and 'A' level.

    Maths PGCE students get an enhanced bursary and are subject to recruitment and retention payments to persuade maths graduates to take up teaching - We need more STEM graduates and especially maths graduates and the solution is simple:-

    a) Tuition fees for UK undergraduates studying STEM subjects should be paid for the state.

    And;

    b) A fixed level grant system should be paid to all STEM subject undergraduates.

    OR;

    c) The above mentioned Tuition Fees and support Grant mentioned above should be special type of student loan that is written off if the student graduates and works 10 years in the UK supporting UK plc by working in the UK to benefit the UK.

    I note that the advantage of the the loan option written off after 10 years working in the UK for UK plc means undergraduates who drop out without graduating or go overseas to work will have to pay the loans back as they dont benefit UK plc - For those who say this is not fair I should point out in the 1970's at Swansea Uniiversity for 6 years I knew many Turkish undergraduates and post graduates studying at Swansea University funded by a Turkish Government scheme requiring them to work for Turkey plc for a set number of years or have to pay the support back to the Turkish Government - The same applied to Malaysian and Greek students on a 2 year post grad course I attended at Aston University in the early 1980's.

    2) Industry must support schools by encouraging engineers, especially young engineers, to act as Science and Engineering Ambassadors (SEA's) in secondary and primary schools to help make STEM subjects fun and relevant and encourage girls into STEM subjects other than Biology and both undo stereotyping that keeps girls out of Engineering and make Engineering relevant - Girls are half our population and they make just as good engineers as boys.

    The role of SEA's in schools is just as important for GCSE and 'A' level school leavers starting a career in local industry as it is encouraging undergraduates studying STEM subjects as mathematically and scientificallyt literate16 and 18 year old school leavers are probably more important for local industry to be world beaters that graduates as we can recruit graduates from anywhere in the world BUT 16 and 18 year old school leavers form our core non-graduate workforce.

    3) Employers must encourage professional development including professional registration and then keep their registrants with appropriate financial and non-financial rewards.

    And;

    4) Employers must provide suitable non-financial rewards to keep staff and meet their work demands - For instance flexible working hours with core times for meetings which to allow workers to adjust their work hours to both their work loads, family commitments and/or their life style. It really does work and is both a great recruitment and retention bonus for an employer but is repaid by workers putting in the hours when work loads require it in exchange for time off when work loads are slack.

    Finally I note here that some industries require sub contractors to have appropriately trained and qualified personnel before they can bid for work - For instance, defence and of course ald/new nuclear builds have required my company CV to form part of the pre tender approval process in the UK and for exporting welded fabrications to Germany and Offshore - It is vital for UK businesses to have the professionals they need to either break into these markets or retain their position in these markets.

    Even where Engineering Professionals aren't required for tendering processes Siemens and many other highly successful major businesses identify Key Personnel and Key processes for each of their business units that those business units depend upon and then ensure they have adequate cover in case of equipment breakdown or loss of Key personnel (illness or departure) with succession planning built in.

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  • As the author of the Report, I do accept that the response may have been coloured a bit by the fact that our database is mainly comprised of students interested in careers (targetjobs.co.uk is a careers site after all!) but it does include undergrads, of course, who don't intend to go into jobs related to their degrees.

    Interestingly, we did another survey a little earlier of STEM female undergrads and it became clear that the vast majority said they would pretty definitely go into related careers. They did have issues and suggestions for employers to become better recruiters, but they were overwhelmingly positive. Here is the link to the Report:

    http://gtimedia.co.uk/files/r5g2/imce/Is-the-shortage-of-stem-women-graduates-keeping-you-awake-at-night-2013.pdf

    So, if it's true that undergrads are deserting the sector for banking jobs, then it must be the men who are absconding. Food for thought and more research I think.

    But nevertheless we seem to have a group of engineering undergrads happy with their degree courses and pretty focused on an engineering career. Of course we need more engineering undergrads, especially more women, but we didn't identify a lot of discontent with higher education nor with the prospect of careers in the sector.

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  • Once you get a bit older the low pay becomes a significant burden. It is just about adequate for a single person renting with little financial responsibility. This is a very short period of time. The reality is pay is very low and it simply does not attract people into the industry.

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  • Having been a student several years ago and spent 10 years in Engineering its easy to be attracted to a company because of the salary. I agree engineers are likely to be less concerned by money because there are some fantastic engineering jobs out there with great job satisfaction with lesser salaries. Ive recently been offered a fantastic position for another company with a great package but have decided to turn in down for a lower salary for a company which suits my career development for where i want to be in 5-10 years time and also offers better job satisfaction. The money will come, the experience needs to be earnt.

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  • There are certainly many fantastic positions in engineering. It is a very rewarding career. I think the salary issue has been around for a long time now, certainly it was talked about when I started. I agree with the above comment in that experience is critical especially early on in the career path. Experience can be a good reason to overlook salary shortfalls. There will come a time when you do need to move on either for further experience or for more money. I also agree that salary is one of the main reasons if not the main reason that engineering struggles to attract the most talented people. Progression in engineering is often by moving further away from it into management.

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  • Maybe it is time to redefine engineering, Industry etc. The Queens award for Engineering had the creators of the InterWeb as winners. I studied Aeronatutical engineering in the 80s – but now ‘Engineer’/design/write software for use as a Service to engineering/manufacturing (but also service ‘products’ industries such as financial).

    Most students who will study Mechanical, Electronic/Electrical, Civil engineering may end up not performing as a traditional engineer, but Project engineers, systems engineers computer software designers etc.. The manufacturing/service divide in totally blurred compared to even say the 70s both in terms of sectors and what an individual performs in their profession. Professional engineers at a high level also need to know ‘enough about finance, law and accountancy.

    STEM like subjects esp Maths and Physics are needed for ALL professions. Perhaps we are spending too much time trying to produce traditional engineers for traditional engineering/manufacturing Industries (who often will not take responsibility for training themselves) – when we should actually be creating NEW Industries, where a general education from maths to economics and history is important and people develop the new skills as they go along – as I’m sure Stephenson, Brunel and others did in their time?

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  • I've been working in electronics for 7 years now (1st class Hons Masters in electrical & electronics). Was on lowly pay of £27-30k for 6 years until I threatened to leave and got £10k on top. Thing is, I crave more. At first I thought I was being greedy, but my other professional friends who are in recruitment, HR, law - largely earn double (if not more) than what I'm getting! I wouldn't mind if it weren't for the high cost of living in the UK.

    I'm looking at either a change to the oil & gas industry (average salary £80k up in Aberdeen), a move into sales/marketing (can't see that happening), or a move to the States. They pay a little more in the States (semiconductors) but I've noticed their salaries coming down, also - and you know they have very few holidays - and firing rounds are more common. Not convinced on any of those. But any one has to pay more..

    If I could turn back time... I'd still be an engineer, but probably a chemical engineer and then try to get into an oil company. I'd never go into banking. Granted, there are lots of job opportunities with 'decent' salaries - but they never seem to go up. We hear all the time about the high starting salary for engineers, but double that (so go from £28k to £56k) and you're not far off the mark for lifetime career progression.

    Compared to the 'average Joe' we do ok. But compared to other grads whose subjects are as demanding and meaningful - the pay ain't so great. Meaningful.. just look at senior HR managers' salaries. Bet they couldn't design nanometre circuitry... I've not yet hit 30 and whilst I've always known a lot of this to be true, I now know that I have to act NOW before it's 'too late' for me.

    Just trawl through glassdoor, or look at any job website and look at the salaries for some jobs - it's pretty astounding.

    I'm not convinced about this 'engineering shortage' either.. I'm sure it's just another way to bring in a new wave so that wages can be kept low.

    If you're at the bottom of the pile doing the actual work, you'll always be.. at the bottom of the pile. Get closer to the money or to the top of an organisation and you get more. Doesn't matter if your engineering design is the bedrock upon which the company thrives. I honestly can't imagine (from what I've seen firs-hand) a sales/marketing role being more difficult than what I do day-in, day-out. I put in extra hours at home (no overtime pay - you get that in oil & gas, though) too.

    Although these 'truths' are somewhat global, I believe it's all the more rotten in the UK. Things really are messed up here. Good luck living down South on an engineer's wage of £40-60k (most seem to be at the lower end) with housing costing a quarter of a million pounds (plus interest on top).

    It's not ALL bad - the job can be enjoyable. But at the end of the day you're a mug if you're putting in long hours and hard work, doing a difficult job for what really isn't a spectacular salary. Don't give in to putting in the 'extra half-hour' after work (stay-late culture) - leave on time! Get a life! You're trading your efforts for remuneration at the end of the day! The company should be glad to have YOU! My friends in Aberdeen make damn sure they get overtime rates if they work the extra hours - why isn't this the same for other industries?

    Like I say, not all bad - I've done some interesting work and enjoy it. But at the end of the day, you go home to family/friends/your life - you need money to support that. If your job isn't paying - better take a look in the mirror a look at those job pages (to see how your salary compares) and then decide on a course of action.

    Somebody mentioned taking an interesting job paying less than another less-interesting job paying more. I agree to an extent. I did this myself once - turned down a £4k rise in a new job as I knew I'd get better experience at my current company.

    I felt a little horrible after reading the main story - how us engineers are willing to 'settle for less' for a more enjoyable job. On the one hand I DO agree.. on the other, it depends just how large the pay disparity is between this line of work and others which leave you thinking 'say what!?'. Friend of a friend recruits for IT roles - £85k, age 32. Unreal! When I was 15 years old I thought £40k was a decent salary - and that seems not to have changed much at the lower levels. I include engineers' salaries in this 'lower levels' category. Law, banking, medicine, recruiting (!), HR, you name it.. £60k+ for middle roles from what I've seen from friends in Edinburgh, London & Aberdeen.

    Course quality: even when I was studying I noticed how our courses were dumbed down a little compared to previous years (Berkley & Stanford seem to do all the things my course used to teach) - and now I see what the students these days get taught and it's definitely been toned down again.

    Employers need to pull their fingers out, and invest in TRAINING. Even on-the-job training. Anybody heard of apprenticeships? Great idea!

    Enough for now...

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