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Apprenticeships and careers

So it turns out that engineers don’t make that bad businesspeople after all: Alan Sugar last night decided to pick inventor and engineering graduate Tom Pellereau as the winner of this year’s Apprentice TV show.

Despite having decried the commercial sensibilities of engineers earlier in the series, Lord Sugar chose to reward Pellereau’s ability to come up with ideas and develop them for the market with a £250,000 investment and partnership in a new business.

Strangely, Lord Sugar made no mention of his turnaround of opinion and none of the guests on last night’s final episode questioned him on it. But the engineering community should feel vindicated at the former Amstrad boss’s recognition of his need to work with people who understand problem solving, technology and product design as well as sales.

While one high-profile engineer is celebrating, other news suggests some graduates are not faring so well. Those with engineering and technology degrees who finished their studies last year are among the most likely to still be unemployed, according to Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

Around 12.3 per cent of recent engineering graduates were unemployed in HESA’s survey, compared to 9.6 per cent overall and putting the subject above only computer science and communication. But how does such a disappointing statistic reconcile with the constant message from engineering firms of a skills shortage?

The IET will tomorrow publish its latest report, Skills & Demand in Industry Annual Survey 2011. Head of policy Paul Davies said the HESA figures gave a contrary picture to the IET’s data.

Of 400 companies surveyed from across the UK’s engineering sector, Davies told The Engineer, 47 percent said they were recruiting engineers and 34 per cent of those said they were having problems finding suitable graduates.

While most said they were happy with the quality of degrees, the biggest problem was a lack of practical experience. However, Davies also pointed out that further data from HESA showed that a higher proportion of engineers secured professional roles than almost any other graduate group.

Chris Kirby, head of education and skills at the IMechE, argued that the HESA statistics didn’t give the full picture. ‘Some subjects, such as medicine and law, are less vulnerable to economic change,’ he told The Engineer. ‘Take them out and engineers are much closer to the average unemployment rate.’

He also pointed out that six months is not a very long time for graduates and that looking at data on those who graduated from university three and a half years ago showed that, in the longer term, engineers performed better in the job market than any other graduate group except for those in medicine.

Leicester University’s Helen Atkinson, Royal Academy of Engineering fellow and president of the Engineering Professors’ Council, is leading research to unpick this problem following similar statistics that came out last year.

She said that engineers may have been hit particularly hard because of the collapse of industries such as construction, while the overall figures may mask regional variations related to the fact that the economic recovery is much stronger in the southeast of England than anywhere else. We can expect to see the results of her study in six to nine months.

Looking to the rest of the week, Thursday 21 July is the start of the government’s manufacturing regulation consultation. ‘The Red Tape Challenge really is a rare opportunity for manufacturers to have their say on the regulations that affect them,’ said Neale Ryan of the Manufacturing Advisory Service (MAS). ‘That’s why MAS is urging manufacturers to take part and tell the Government what changes they would like to see.’

A likely hot topic will be environmental regulation, particularly that related to climate change. Mark Potts of automotive parts manufacturer Gestamp said a number of regulations increased the burden on manufacturers without delivering any obvious benefits.

‘I, for example, would like to see a reversal of the lowering of both the Climate Change Levy threshold, which will penalise smaller energy intensive companies such as ours, and Feed In Tariffs (FITs), which will affect the commercial viability of installing green technologies, such as solar panels.’

But for those working within the so-called green economy, the key will be refining regulation not stripping it back. The recent annual report from the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC) argued that only a strong policy framework would allow the UK to exploit the vast commercial opportunities created by the need to address greenhouse gas emissions.

Those wishing to have their views heard by ministers should visit the Red Tape Challenge website before 11 August.

Readers' comments (15)

  • I've felt for a long time that many engineering companies are reluctant to invest in training - certainly compared to Law and Accountancy firms.

    This is one of the reason why so many top engineering graduates go into management consultancy and accountancy. The engineering firms are looking for someone with the exact qualifications they want and real world experience, rather than being prepared to give the training and experience and have a little patience.

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  • I am surprised that only 34% of respondents are having difficulty finding suitable graduates ...

    The majority of companies in the UK are 'small', and therefore need access to graduates who at least have some intrinsic sense or 'feel' for engineering, in addition to the technical know-how, simply because they cannot affor the overhead of re-training or re-educating such recruits in the basics.

    I'm being polite here. My boss would be far more caustic and barbed in his comments !!!

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  • we need more open places for training apprenticeships and engineering graduates. The trouble is managers want all new recruits with experience which they cannot get without the correct opportunity or training to begin with!

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  • How on earth can graduates get the required work experience unless they are employed by engineering companies?
    Even small companies must realise they themselves need to make the investment in training. Stop listening to the accountants.

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  • Apprenticeship numbers in England are among the lowest in Europe. To compound this the vast majority of apprentices are found in the service sector.

    Apprentices per 1000 employed persons 2008, 2009 were 11 in England compared to 40 in Germany and 43 in Switzerland.

    The average for all apprenticeships in England is between one and two years compared to 3 years in Germany and 4 years in Ireland.

    In Germany more or less all companies employing 500+ offer apprenticeships, in England this are a mere 25%.

    These figures speak for themselves. The number and quality of apprenticeships in this country is in crisis. Something radical has to be done about it. It doesn't need reinventing the wheel, just look at the European neighbours how they do it.

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  • I have two comments but I spend a huge amount of time trying to promote engineering.

    (1) I visited a small company in Edinburgh which was looking for a replacement in a design function. They employed three people: the first worked for a week and called in sick on the following Monday, the second kept falling asleep at his desk and they thought he might have a drug problem, the third said he could start on Monday and then called in to say that his girlfriend had changed shift and could he start on the following Monday. They then found a perfect graduate from Poland.

    (2) Another company in Rotherham hired two new graduates at the same time - both were bright and interviewed well. The first just left after the first month because he expected a purely office job and the second had to leave after three months because of poor work.

    I suppose the point and the reason why people ask for experience is that graduates expect more than they get. When you join a company you have to work really hard to make a niche for yourself and many gradutes are just not 'hungry' enough to put themselves out.

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  • Having worked my way from the shop floor (time served + 6 years) to a 2 year HND & then BSc in Engineering (apart from a couple of years in a technical sales role) I never got the breaks. Caught in the no experience of the careers I wished to follow & being regarded as over qualified for the shop floor trap, I ended up in an administrative role in a training company.

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  • Agreed T McKeegan - we haven't all got a workshop at the bottom of the garden, or know friends that own engineering firms that we can pop down to and have a go whenever we like...

    I find it fustrating that people are unwilling to take risks on new employees and ramp up training in the period when they should be doing exactly that - now! They would thank themselves later on when they are ahead of their competitors...

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  • The main problem is the agencies. They promise to fit an engineer to the role and the company takes them at face value, and have little need to take on an engineer and train them to fit the role. Hence companies, other than large ones, have no need to do any training, opting for hiring and firing policies. This reduces the wage bill and gets them near enough what they want to get a job done.

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  • I am from India and retired last year.Here in india the entry level engineers available are not upto the mark but we do find few ones who get trained and leave us. I remeber an appreentice way back in 1980 whom we selcted as an apprentice to work as Instrumentation technician and who worked so hard that we created post for him and company absorbed as permanent technician and he proved to to be a good asset-P.D.KULKARNI

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