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Engineering needs to invest in work experience

Engineering graduates don’t have enough practical skills. There’s an argument that we’ve heard so often it’s become a cliché. ‘University courses teach you the theory but you need real work experience before you’re ready for the job,’ argue not only outright critics of our academic system but also employers who say they are struggling to recruit young people with the right skills.

In the current depressed economic times, it’s never been more important for engineering graduates to have a work experience placement on their CVs. The Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HESCU) says 10 per cent of recent engineering graduates are out of work – higher than for graduates of social sciences such as psychology and geography. So job applicants are facing stiffer competition than probably ever before.

Students are well aware that work experience is key. ‘There has been a significant rise in the number looking for internships,’ says HESCU’s deputy director of research, Charlie Ball. The number of students and graduates viewing engineering internship opportunities on the Prospects careers website has increased by 27 per cent between 2009 and 2011.

But new research suggests that engineering companies just aren’t offering the placements that employers themselves say are so important. In a survey of engineering graduates from predominantly top-ranking universities, the number one complaint against potential employers was the lack of opportunity to experience the world of work.

‘It was the most passionate part of their response,’ says Chris Philips, chair of the TARGETjobs Engineering Forum, which carried out the survey of 1000 graduates through its careers website. ‘Students are broadly content that their degrees taught them technical skills and employability skills, but there aren’t enough relevant work placements over the whole spread of engineering companies. They also felt they were competing with European students who have placement opportunities built into the degree courses. UK students are feeling double crossed.’

Of course many companies do offer work experience schemes to young people of different ages. According to the IET’s latest skills survey, 60 per cent of firms have taken on interns in the past 12 months. But the issue is how many placements there are compared with the number of graduates and jobs. As an example, energy firm Centrica is hiring 17 graduate engineers from a variety of disciplines this year but only offers 10 summer work experience placements. And competition is fierce. In total the company has 140 places for its graduate and summer placement schemes but receives around 5,500 applications.

If the problem is as widespread as students seem to feel it is, then the industry really needs to take note because it could be damaging what is already a struggling skills market. Depending on whom you talk to, either there aren’t enough engineering graduates, or their skills don’t meet the requirements of employers, or too many of them are going into other industries. Employers who tell students they can’t have a job without work experience but then don’t offer any placements could be exacerbating all these problems.

If students are turned away from engineering jobs they could be more likely to look to other sectors, not least those that offer more money for their problem solving skills. Universities can only do so much: industry needs to play its part in training the engineers of tomorrow, especially if such a premium is put on practical job experience. And if young people are assessing the employability of different subjects – increasingly likely now that the cost of a degree has tripled – they’ll be less likely to choose engineering if they feel their three years of study won’t lead to a job.

So why aren’t more placements available to young people? Although health and safety bureaucracy can cause a serious headache for those setting placements for under-18s, they shouldn’t have the same trouble accepting university students. ‘Once they become adults, young people have a lot more common sense,’ says John Nollett, managing director of steering system manufacturer Pailton Engineering, which employs 150 people and places both under- and over-18s in work experience and apprenticeships. ‘We have a robust health and safety regime in place already for our employees so we’re not worried about older people doing work experience.’

A problem for some firms, particular smaller more specialised ones, is that students don’t have enough knowledge to be able to drop in for a few weeks and gain meaningful experience. ‘Our work is so specialist that we can’t just take anyone – they need proper training,’ says Michelle Rix, operations manager at green energy firm Ecotricity, which doesn’t offer work experience to engineering students.

‘Companies do appreciate that if you can’t do work placements properly you may as well not do them at all,’ says Philips. And this is the biggest problem for engineering firms: work placements cost time and money, which many companies can ill afford especially in the current economic climate. ‘Senior executives say they get the need for more work experience but it’s a resource issue,’ says Philips, who adds that many companies he has spoken to are planning to put more money into work experience schemes.

Increased commitment from employers does seem like the key way this situation can be improved. Another could be closer cooperation between industry and academia to ensure universities are turning out graduates with the skills needed to make them employable. Perhaps more courses should look at incorporating placements into their curricula.

‘The sector needs to ask if it is properly articulating what it needs to universities and if it is being realistic,’ says Ball. ‘What are the skills deficiencies and can employers address this problem themselves? But we have to be nuanced about our approach. We need to make the case that being an engineer is an excellent career option. Engineering employers and universities need to have a good thoughtful dialogue and not blame each other.’

What is clear is that we need a long-term solution and investment in young people. Refusing students work experience placements might save some cash in the short-term but is only storing up problems for later on.

Readers' comments (29)

  • Whiy is it that almost every other country in the world seems to be able to do things better than the UK?

    Much as I sympathise with the views of people like Michelle Rix, how do you expect to get people interested in taking up engineering as a career if you don't give them exposure to a real working environment?

    Also, much as engineering companies are bemoaning the general lack of skills amongst today's job candidates, they arguably bear some of the blame for this situation ever occurring in the first place - after all, who stopped providing apprenticeships?

    Until we stop seeing young people as a cost liability and start instead viewing them as a crucial resource for the future that needs to be invested in, we're never going to get out of the mess we're in as a nation.

    Would also like to use this as an opportunity to draw your attention to this article 'Average UK student debts 'could hit £53,000' ( If students can't get the work experience they need, then what's the point in aspiring to anything?

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  • I'm a qualified electrical engineer & health and safety advisor.

    I now find myself out of work & I get the same barriers, too experienced, not experienced in the correct fields.

    It doesn't matter how experiended or inexperienced you are, it's an employers market & they can pick and choose who they want.

    Employers weren't training people in the 90's & it's even worse now.

    Industries answer is to bring in foreign labour.

    It's about time that British industry invests in it's own workforce & trains their own people, then it will get a skilled and dedicated workforce.

    Currently it has a semi skilled workforce with no interest in the job they do, just hanging on for the pay cheque.

    I strongly believe this is what has caused the recent rioting, they cannot get a break to get employment, so they take what they need.

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  • This seems symptomatic of poor government policy; not supporting work placements for new graduates with a grant or funding system, and companies themselves being unwilling to speculate to accumulate.

    In the short term government legislation isn;t going to arrive; so companies need to take the plunge, and invest in people for (both) their own future success.

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  • I seem to remember - when I was an apprentice in the late '70's - that we had "polytechnics" then!! They offered degree courses with a year out mid way to give on the job experience. I didn't go to uni but got my MSc years later via distance learning, but this has been a problem for all of my years in manufacturing. Polytechnics were not seen by the elite as offering the same quality of degree as a university, we've had an ongoing "dumbing down" of our education system where the focus has been "bums on seats" instead of the right degree courses for the right number of people to fill the right jobs to secure our future prosperity as a country. Every college now claims to be a university (and every man and his dog knows that simply cannot be the case), they're all competing against each other (so throw out course that have no bearing on what we actually need as a nation), nobody can get hold of a fitter or electrician for love nor money as everyone apparently has to go to university nowadays (claim successive governments), yet our competitors overseas know exactly what is required and structure their education systems to suit. Whilst I'm sure some of this can be blamed on manufacturers themselves, I cannot help but think that most of the above has to be laid at the door of Government for not planning ahead, not supporting manufacturing and simply living for their next term of office! Glad I'm approaching retirement, but I fear for the future and what my kids and their kids have to look forward to!

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  • It's the same old story in industry, "What happens if I train my engineers and then they leave?" They claim to have no budget for training, but are willing to miss months of potential opportunities while trying to poach staff from their competitors.

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  • Further to my comments above and those of Steve Cupples, I also believe that the engineering sector (and others too for that matter) should get involved a lot earlier in the education process. I firmly believe that the UK's education system is manifestly unfit for purpose - this is borne out by Steve's comments, which I'm sure are only the tip of the iceberg.

    The problem in the UK has been the over emphasis of academic subjects over vocational skills. I can't help wondering how many of the disgruntled youngsters seen in recent days could have been saved by giving them opportunities to use their hands rather than trying to shoehorn them into an educational system that doesn't meet their needs.

    Ideally, I would like to see companies involved in the design of educational materials that give young people a real idea of what work is about.

    I'm a big fan of humanities subjects, but ultimately, what's the point in knowing what happened at the Battle of Hastings when the most important focus for today's generation is finding ways to make a future for itself?

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  • It has been like this in Germany for ages. Companies request work experience but don't give you the opportunity to get that experience.
    Or they say they are the forerunner in a particular field, but need people who already have several years experience in that field in which they claim they are the first.
    But in the engineering world nothing is like 100%. If you cannot fulfill 1 or 2 items of the requirements, you are still better than the average applicant.

    If I train my engineers and they leave, there is a good chance that I get satisfied customers or suppliers who know what I need.

    I had the chance in school to visit the factory where my parents worked. Companies could offer that today for schools as well. Invite the local school to your place and show them what you are doing.
    You might get future apprentices, customers or suppliers.
    Or just call it network building.

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  • Isn't it time employers worked with Universities to encourage students individually and build a relationship together that would lead to employment? Just taking a student on work placement during the summer holidays is going to lead nowhere. There is no assesment of skills, guidence of direction or tailoring university courses to meet the engineering sector's future demand. We spend more time showing students where the toilet is than allowing proper hands on work, because they are here for 2 weeks max.
    Oh, and if you think the UK engineering sector is bad at this, you should try looking at the NHS. Nurses have to enter at graduate level in most posts now, what is that all about?

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  • Who should we blame? The Government or big industrialists greedy for profit? The problem is that people are not ready to work when they graduate, they are not careful in calculation, they expect fast promotion, they want an easy life. Graduates have to be hungry for work and they must earn respect from their employers - things which tend to be normal for those from poorer countries. You can't expect companies to train if the word 'train' means putting up with a bad attitude.

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  • As the author of the TARGETjobs Engineering Report referred to in Stephens' piece and as someone who conducts regular surveys of undergraduates from all degree disciplines, the response to this survey was unprecendented in terms of the volume of comments made. I know from previous research that engineering students are not particularly talkative when compared to management or humanities students for example. This time, in response to a simple request for them to give the employers at the TARGETjobs Engineering Forum a message, they wrote loads - and most were heartfelt pleas to offer more work experience.

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