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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)

  • Even if we want to take some outside courses in php or networks field after university so that we can be able to make an interview it costs a lot of money. Even for me the university training program I took didn't help me that much in finding a career that at least can cover the transportation money needed so really I don't know what to do. I loved what I studied in university but know I feel it was a huge effort with no results. This is our situation in Jordan but it seems to be the same for the whole world. Fresh graduate engineers, nobody takes us seriously even if we do their jobs better than them!

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  • I have worked with Uni grads, and yes, lots of knowledge, but practical knowledge? Pretty much hopeless.
    I do feel for the guys in this predicament.
    I never went to uni, although I did 2 years at an engineering tech college, which was all hands-on.
    I chose to teach myself electronics, way back in the 50s, I've been designing in electronics for many years now with absolutely no qualifications, currently working in the CCTV business. It's just a hobby with pay to me, earning £40k. I'm a happy bunny.

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  • I did a year in industry, which I found very useful in hindsight. Although I'm sure I was a bit of an 'overhead' to the company, they paid me very little so I expect it balanced.

    I stopped doing placements during my degree, as 2 months is not enough time to really get stuck into something useful, unless the company really puts in some effort to set things up.

    While universities should keep an eye on what industry needs, they should not teach detailed use of industry tools: these will be out of date when the student graduates. Companies are the best placed to do this, and universities are best placed to teach the academic stuff.

    Employing graduates will always be a long-term decision, and like employing anyone without much of a demonstrated background, it will always be a risk.

    The inverse snobbery of 'university of life' arguments is short sighted; however, some small companies need to focus on the here and now. Bigger companies can offer varied training, and it seems to me that the more you make people attractive to competitors, the more likely they are to stay with you...

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  • ‘Our work is so specialist that we can’t just take anyone – they need proper training,’

    This surely applies to many if not most engineering companies: in which case logically there is only one company or its competitors who can supply appropriate training.

    Those who don't train encounter a skills gap. Now there's a thing.

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  • As managing director of a small company providing specialised engineering training, I see this problem all the time.

    Years ago I completed a sandwich course in mechanical engineering and I fully recognise that my year out in industry made a significant difference to how I functioned personnally within an engineering environment. However, I was extremely lucky to have a very good manager as a mentor who continued to puh and challenge me. It was the one thing that made a difference to my career.

    I fully recognise the responsibility that the industry has. However, our company provides the types of courses that the education system cannot provide or keep up with. As the UK moves to highly innovative engineering the educational system cannot keep up with current industry practices.

    We get intership requests all the time, but most are limited to a few months. We need at least 3 months to get someone up to speed with our activities before we can start to get any returns on our time. It can cost us approx. £5-7k to develop that person over a year, something that is rarely apprieciated.

    On approaching our own 'local' univerities, it seems that they are more interested in services they can offer our company rather that what our company can offer their students.

    We now look to our own course delegates that really show that they are willing to invest in their future.

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  • I can say from past experience finding a work placement is key for employment after graduation. I was unfortunate not to have found a placement in my third year of studies and graduating into a recession in 2008 did not help either in pursuing a career in engineering.

    A year had past and was still no further in gaining a foothold in the engineering sector. By the end, I was applying to any local engineering firms for unpaid internships. Still no luck...

    One day an ad had come up on a graduate job listing for a Design Engineer. I applied and luckily got the job.

    Having worked at this firm for over 18 months, I can say that when an employer states - 'training will be given', what they really mean is teach yourself as you work on a project. Am I getting the wrong idea?

    I've also contemplated at times whether it was worth the years of study at university, when shopfloor workers in their mid-twenties can earn close to £30k with no university debt whist I'm barely breaking £18k as a graduate with over £12k to repay in student loans. I don't see how I'll be able to clear my debt in the next 25 years as it's deducting a small amount which only covers the interest. I also don't see how future graduates who'll be on higher tuition fees and further debt can repay it all back before they retire...

    Does anyone have similar experiences or can add more to what I've said?

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  • How many of the posts contain the word "BLAME" and its something i find interesting as it appears to be endemic today. Blame somebody and moan about it rather than deal with the real issues.

    Blame cannot be laid at any party's door, but can be laid at many doors, and we have to stop trying to apportion blame and deal with the issues.

    The real issues are simple, educational standards have dropped and severely dumbed down. Modern degrees are seen as worthless and an attempt to manupulate figures rather than teach real skills. This is more true among us "older" holders of degrees who had to do them in our own time while working full time.

    Industry did, and has not acted when they saw such issues arising, allowing this situation to develop into what we have today. Had they acted we simply would not be here.

    Many of the graduates have issues, mainly that of pre-conceived ideas of where they will find work, and particularly about there role. Many simply will not begin at the bottom and work up, their expectations are so high that they use this as a target for a position. They expect to start halfway up the ladder, not at the bottom, and certainly above those more qualified or experienced. Many are so vain that a title is more important to them, just as so much of society today are.

    Resolving this issue is simple, but, it needs the co-operation of all parties, realistic expectations from graduates, and a coherent approach.

    What did work? should we go back to this approach? and more importantly we need a change of attitude. Education is very important, particularly educating the general public what engineering is about is a must, and it should begin at school. Children need to know what engineering provides for them, and more importantly, how it influences their lives in all respects. People need to understand how engineering interacts and influences many other fields.

    Companies need to invest in training, particularly taking on apprentices and allowing them to develop. Industry then needs to take the best of these and introduce them to degree courses, and give the best the opportunity to take these courses. Industry will then have people with practical experience, those with a mixture of enhanced qualifications, and a number of staff with the best mix for their industry. Most of the problems will be resolved, but it will severely dent the manipulated figures of Government.

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  • Like many, I take on as many students as I can for summer or year placements. But we can't take on enough.
    For those with nothing my advice is: get on with something practical hands-on. I learnt much of what I use today - a 'feel' for stuff - by doing things.
    So get out there, design and build something. Maybe it's a model plane that really flies, your own bike design - learn to weld while you are doing it - or a computer-controlled trebuchet. You will be first in the queue for my student jobs.

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  • This problem is not endemic to UK. The same issues exist in the US. I work in higher education and I see senior students who spend the whole of a year and not succeeding in finding an internship. All job postings require 3-5 years of experience in field (all fields not just engineering). I fear with the high unemployment, young people are being passed over for those with more experience. Which in turn, means they are not gaining any experience themselves. When the older gen retires in 10 years or so, there will be a crisis in skilled labor. Employers increasingly have combined positions to save money and now complain they cannot find a worker with the 'right' skill-set. That is because they have combined two or even three very diverse positions into one, whereby it is a needle in the haystack to find a person who has all the skills. Employers will allow positions to stay empty rather than hire someone who may need some partial training. It has exacerbated the unemployment problem.

    Solution: Employers will not invest money/time/training in internships anymore, then instead university should compensate industry to take their graduates. Seniors will pay tuition for the internship which in turn will be used to compensate industry for taking the graduate. If hands-on work experience is viewed as integral to completing an education, universities need to provide that. Universities can also start their own internships where contract work can be sourced by industry and completed by students, checked by an instructor/supervisor. Good quality will beget more contracts will beget more experience for students.

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  • I think all engineering courses should have a compulsory sandwich year in industry. I did mine a few years ago and while it wasn't a role I would have wanted to get into it taught me a lot in how to conduct oneself in a business environment.

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