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Network Rail raises concerns over British graduates

Network Rail today warned Britain risked a generation of graduates no more employable than school leavers unless universities and business worked better together to deliver a programme relevant and practical for the commercial world.

As the company launches its graduate scheme for 2011, it warns that while applications are up, there is a worrying trend of candidates with little or no awareness of how business operates, and in some cases, engineering graduates with a lack of understanding of ’the basics’.

Iain Coucher, Network Rail chief executive, said: ‘A successful railway is vital to Britain’s economic growth and prosperity. To deliver this we must continue to hire top graduate talent. The partnerships we have with a number of universities produce many graduates ready for work and who will make a genuine contribution, yet we’re also seeing a worrying increase in graduate candidates who have little more to offer than school leavers. Many have seemingly coasted through university without getting any sort of a grasp of the realities of business.

‘Students must do more to make themselves ready for work. Universities and businesses must play their part in shaping learning that will be meaningful, practical and valuable to prospective employers. If we continue to simply churn out ever increasing numbers of graduates rather than produce quality, rounded individuals, the talent pool on which British business relies will be a rather diluted one.’

Network Rail conducted a survey of around 300 graduates who have entered the Network Rail scheme in recent years. It found:

Half already had an understanding of the career options open to them before university

As students, they got careers advice from a number of sources with 76 per cent choosing the internet, 71 per cent university and 58 per cent friends

Less than half (37 per cent) got advice from careers advisers

16 per cent believe their university course prepared them for employment, with 76 per cent believing it only did so in some ways

Three quarters undertook some work experience or voluntary work during or after their course, with 91 per cent of these believing that it made them more attractive to potential employers

Readers' comments (9)

  • Are we in danger of creating engineers who are Jacks of all trades and masters of none?

    As engineering itself becomes more complex with materials, systems, legislation and the like, asking for a "more rounded" individual with quality in all of these modern engineering aspects as well as business from a university will become almost impossible.

    Surely having a capable engineer who learns their "business" through ongoing professional training in the market of their choice must be a better alternative.

    For every James Dyson, there are hundreds of engineers who are just that; supporting businesses through quality engineering, whilst business professionals analyse the business trends. These elements together and not in the same person, along with effective management of these talents create success.

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  • Things are even worse. We interviewed electrical engineering graduates who didn't know what a fuse did! I spoke to a senior lecturer who admitted to "doing enough to tick boxes and secure funding" but not to producing useful engineers.

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  • I graduated in 1998 from Warwick, having completed a BEng, the core content of the course was correct for industry at the time, but the course itself did not prepare the students for 'real' business. During the course of my studies I had two work placements (organised by myself), both of which helped me focus on both career path and choosing the right modules. I went on to study at Birmingham and had a 3 month unpaid work placement at Land Rover, which extremely valuable. I have recently interviewed some fresh graduates, many of them failed to communicate even a basic level of understanding or application of their courses or project work, some had clearly never 'touched metal'. In summary there needs to be a mandatory vocational element to the engineering degree courses, otherwise we will run the risk of having a real skills gap in industry.

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  • At various times between 1974-1977 I visited Manilla to assist in a UN program for the practical training of engineers and being astonished that the graduate engineers in my group had never been inside a factory or on a work site. It seems that the UK universities, and I am sure they are not alone in the world, now have similarly degenerated to send into the world unemployable engineers due to the emasculation of manufacturing industry. It is not the fault of the students but of governemnts and the universities who have lost their industrial connections.

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  • Thats great, I completely agree.
    Recently I happened to meet some of my daughter's senior Engineering students of Electronics academy. They even do not know about basic electronic circuits,
    eg., the DC power supply. I feel very bitter of future engineers who has to bear the future Technological challenges in the world.

    selva kumar
    deputy general manager,
    bharat electronics limited.
    bangalore, india

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  • Engineering moved on from "over the wall" practices years ago and perhaps it is time that the further education establishments did the same? I think a new approach is required where a degree course is defined by "what is required to further the national expertise in emerging and established industries" rather than purely "what denotes that a certain academic level has been achieved." I'm not sure that "grasping the realities of business" is where the problem lies, but rather focus on what is of practical use in the outside world.

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  • “To deliver this we must continue to hire top graduate talent”

    This country is oozing to the brim with top graduate talent. Most of it goes where the money is, and I suspect, given some of the recent salaries I have seen on offer, that may not be the railway industry.

    Graduates don’t touch metal any more. For a variety of reasons
    It’s dirty and smelly, and that’s what dirty smelly people are for, not graduates, heaven forbid!
    It can be dangerous, and people may get hurt operating a lathe, or taking a fuse out, so they need legal representation to sue someone for their own incompetence. For this need they need someone who is clever and successful and was recognised as some of the top graduate talent – see above.

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  • I always find this is a subject hard not to make comment. I have been working in academics and high tech companies well over 20 years. of course not any more. what I observed during the years is that

    (1) company is run to ground by incompetent management, not incompetent engineers.
    (2) companies are generally not as technically competent as they used to be, hence when recruiting engineers, they see what they can do straight away, not what they can develop into.
    (3) in old days university graduate is not educated for technician job, but for what they can be when settled and trained into a specific field. insisting polytechs are universities did not help nowdays.
    (4) a lot of companies are so 'run down' they just cannot afford to build up tech team with good leadership and coaching capabilities, therefore only looking for an exact fit for jobs. If this is not the case, usually it has an incompetent management.

    Uni graduates are just as bad/good as they used to be. Since there are a lot more available now, the extras are naturally from lower end.

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  • Speaking as a masters engineering student at a top 10 ranked university, I severely doubt any university could make a course such that all the students undertaking it fully appreciated and understood fully all the concepts asked for by Network rail. You will get students who coast through uni, and don't have an interest in the subject material, but still get good grades, and seem to be ideal candidates. Making them show a greater interest in their work is not going to happen by forcing a load of business modules down their throats!

    As Nigel at "20 Sep 2010 3:47 pm" said, there are plenty of top engineering graduates out there, and plenty are more than capable of doing a job well, but they may well not be interested in the profession, and many that I know see the degree as a ticket to a variety of career choices other than the one intended by the degree.

    To get the best graduates, that both have the grades, and the willing, you need to be attractive regarding both pay, and working environment, something in which I think Network rail may be lacking.

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