Skills shortages and the leaky engineering pipeline

Why are over 2,000 engineering graduates out of work or in jobs that don’t need degrees asks Charlie Ball, Prospects' Head of Higher Education Intelligence?

This year’s issue of Prospects’ ‘What do graduates do?’ analyses data from the HESA Destination of Leavers of Higher Education survey to chart what happened to last year’s graduates six months after leaving university. The engineering data shows a familiar situation - a tale of high employment of subjects in considerable demand, but with pockets of underemployment.  What is going on when employers are crying out for engineers?

Last year, 16,025 engineering first degrees were awarded (this includes 4 year MEngs as well as 3 year BEngs – 37% of these degrees were 4 year awards). We know what happened to 12,880 of them. Around 75% (9,675) went into work (some combined work with study) and 65.5% (6,340) were working as engineers or technicians. So, straight away, a third of working engineering graduates were not working as engineers.

It’s a common assumption that engineers are moving to the finance industry. While that does happen, it’s not especially widespread – around 10% of those working at most. More concerning is that nearly 1,300 engineering graduates worked in roles that didn’t require a degree. And engineering graduates entered a huge range of other roles too.

Another 1,810 graduates took another degree – this group were largely 3 year engineering graduates taking a Masters in engineering (mechanical, civil and chemical the most popular specialisms) with about a quarter taking a PhD. A small number take Masters in finance and business, but again whilst a consistent leak in the pipeline, it is not a mass movement.

A further 6.7% of graduates were unemployed, although about one in six had a future job lined up.

Why are over 2,000 engineering graduates out of work or in jobs that don’t need degrees?

Nearly a quarter of last year’s unemployed engineering graduates had a First

The simple answer could be that many engineering graduates don’t have the skills for the jobs market and so are not attractive to employers. There’s no question that not every graduate, even in a high demand field like engineering, is going to be equipped with the skills or mindset employers want right away. But nearly 40% of unemployed engineers had those coveted MEngs. The majority had a 2:1 or above. Nearly a quarter of last year’s unemployed engineering graduates had a First. They can’t all be unemployable.

So what else is there? Unfortunately nearly 45% of all unemployed engineering graduates were from a BME background. Engineering is one of the more diverse degrees – 27% of graduates were BME last year. This would be a real feather in the industry’s cap if it weren’t for the uncomfortable fact that BME graduates are significantly more likely to be out of work than their white counterparts. The industry is doing well at attracting a diverse undergraduate intake, but perhaps less well at equality on graduation.

Another factor is geography. Last year the Midlands, the South West and Scotland were where engineering made up the largest proportion of the new graduate workforce. While there were more engineering jobs in London than anywhere else in the country, the sector had the lowest share of the jobs market. Over 20% of all under or unemployed engineering graduates were from London.

This is an issue because graduates are not as mobile as people think. Last year, 58% of graduates went to work in the region they studied in and 69% went to work in the region they were originally domiciled – because 45% never moved at all, they went to institutions close to home and stayed locally to work.

This means that if you are an industry with a lot of large, dispersed sites outside traditional graduate employment hotspots then you need to convince graduates not just to join your industry, but to move to the places where you are located because those places don’t supply enough engineers to meet demand.

Organisations need to learn how to convince talented young engineers from London to leave their home cities for places like Derby, Coventry, Southampton and Plymouth. Engineering graduates do want to be engineers, but often they want to be engineers in London, and we need to convince them to be engineers elsewhere as well.

To meet the skills shortage, companies also need to consider other routes into engineering. A common route into engineering is a three-year engineering degree and then a Masters. Why not make it easier for graduates with the right maths skills to get an engineering qualification? It would be an interesting reversal if the management consultants started complaining that their quantitative trainees were being poached by engineering firms, with their excellent training, interesting responsibilities and decent rates of pay. We know engineering roles can’t always compete on pay, but there is also the benefits of quality of life, training and employment that compare favourably with auditors or financial analysts.

If we have a pipe that’s leaking, we call for an engineer to fix it. The sector has its own leaky pipeline, so who better to get it patched up properly?

Charlie Ball is Head of Higher Education Intelligence at Prospects which is owned by the registered charity Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU).