Young people want more than just money (though it helps)

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Engineering sector student survey 2013 - .PDF file.

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Engineering UK 2013 - .PDF file.

Senior reporter

If we want more engineering graduates to stay in the industry, we have to give them a reason. But that doesn’t just mean higher salaries.

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.