Those finishing degrees this summer were the most ambitious, demanding and confident graduates of their generation, according to the UK Graduate Careers Survey 2001.
This, combined with the scarcity of good engineering students, has forced employers to target more carefully their graduate hiring programmes and to become more responsive to the aspirations of new recruits.
But global economic uncertainty could dent the opportunities for next year’s graduates.
According to the report, from High Fliers Research, this year’s finalists were confident about their prospects and showed little urgency in finding a job, feeling the need to make an average of just under six applications each. Almost half of the respondents thought they would get a job with their first choice employer.
They also had higher expectations of graduate starting salaries, seeking an average £20,800 plus a ‘golden hello’ of up to £3,000 (perhaps a reflection that most of them would have run up debts of about £6,000).
The buoyant economy and job market of recent years explains the confidence of this year’s graduates but, according to Lesley Knaggs, president of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, the outlook for next year’s recruitment is uncertain. This is confirmed by recent figures from the Association of Graduate Recruiters, which found that one in four employers, across all sectors, had cut their recruitment targets for 2002. And while the UK economy is still forecast to grow, manufacturing has been suffering and there have been increasing worries about the global economy since11 September.
‘There has been no dramatic slowdown in graduate recruitment so far, but we’re all holding our breath to see what develops,’ says Knaggs, adding that in sectors such as financial services and consultancy companies some employers have frozen graduate hiring.
Dr Michael Sanderson, chief executive of engineering training organisation EMTA, says it is still too early to assess the prospects for engineering graduate recruitment. ‘There’s no evidence of cutbacks in graduate recruitment or training at the moment,’ he says. ‘Employers are continuing to invest in training, which is encouraging, although there is some caution on capital investment.’
He argues that the outlook for the UK economy is still fairly positive and that engineering-related companies from abroad, such as Honda, are still investing large sums in UK operations.
So what’s the view at some of the UK’s employers?
First, ‘golden hellos’ are still rare, except in some specialist engineering areas experiencing acute shortages. Most employers say they aim to offer ‘competitive’ salary packages but that training and career development are regarded as almost equally important by graduates.
Work-life balance is also becoming more important for graduates, says Emma-Jane Finlay, graduate recruitment supervisor at Ford. ‘People want a life outside their job and we’ve made a big effort to make sure staff are able to leave on time rather than working until late at night. We also offer non-work activities such as wine-tasting courses or golf lessons to show our commitment to work-life balance.’
Finlay says Ford has no plans to reduce its engineering graduate intake. It takes on 30-40 a year in product development and manufacturing. This year, and in previous years, the market has favoured graduate jobseekers, she says, ‘although the pendulum may start swinging the other way if the economic uncertainties continue.’In engineering, Ford has been faced with the same challenge as other employers – the declining pool of students taking engineering-related degrees.
‘The graduate base seems to be shrinking, which has made it harder to recruit, and so we’ve improved our graduate recruitment strategy.’ Changes have included targeting more women and ethnic minorities and speeding up the time betweeninterviewing and job offers.
‘Good quality finalists are only applying to a handful of employers, and will often take the first job offer they receive, so we try and give them a decision quickly,’ says Finlay.
At Smiths Group, Andrew Wilson, engineering human resources manager, recruits about 10 graduates a year from software, electronic and avionics systems courses.’It’s often hard finding people with the right knowledge.
Software graduates frequently have web design experience but no knowledge of real-time embedded software,’ he says.
Graduates are attracted by Smiths’ two-year development programme, says Wilson. ‘They want to know what we will do to develop them, and especially how we can help them achieve chartered status.’
Wilson believes the economic uncertainties will not affect the numbers of graduates recruited. ‘We need to recruit young engineers to keep up with the newest teaching at universities. I’ve known companies in the past that have frozen recruitment and then suffered from knowledge gaps later on,’ he says.
Qinetiq, the privatised arm of defence research agency Dera, hires about 300 graduates a year, of which a large proportion are from engineering disciplines.Caryn Baker, graduate recruitment manager at Qinetiq, says ‘golden hellos’ have been considered in the past for graduates but that it was difficult to implement such a policy when the agency was in the public sector. ‘Perhaps we will revisit that topic, although here there are no common pay scales and it’s up to the part of the business doing the recruiting to decide what it pays,’ she explains.
Qinetiq has always had a rolling programme of graduate recruitment. Because of the buoyant market many other companies are moving in the same direction, says Baker. She adds: ‘These days students are so busy with their courses that if you don’t get someone before Christmas, you’re unlikely to get them next until after finals.’
The main way Qinetiq reaches its targeted graduates is through university careers advisory services. ‘They have good links with students and can pass on information about us to the relevant finalists,’ says Baker.
Qinetic, like many other employers, is increasingly seeking ‘soft skills’ such as teamworking and presentation in its engineering recruits. Baker says: ‘This is particularly relevant to us because we’ve moved from a civil service-style approach to one in which customers have become key to our success. So even if you have a good degree from a top university those interpersonal skills are important.’
The growing demand for engineering graduates with soft skills is one of the drivers for the new graduate apprenticeship scheme.
Meanwhile, recruiters continue to claim that the technical quality of many engineering graduates has declined. One employer says: ‘Our managers often complain that today’s graduates know far less than those in the past, but it’s hard to know whether that’s true or whether older staff see the past through rose-tinted spectacles.’
EMTA’s Sanderson argues that despite the limited supply, employers have been able to find good-quality engineering graduates in recent years. The problem, he says, has been at the intermediate technician level where increasingly graduates from the new universities are being recruited.
So though the general outlook for engineering graduates seeking jobs appears to bepositive, global volatility and the downturn in UK manufacturing could change that picture over the coming months.
Graduate Careers Advisory Services’ Knaggs sums it up: ‘It’s difficult to know whether next summer we’ll see quiet recruitment fairs or ones that are busier that usual because some firms have deferred hiring this summer.’