Graduate brain drain hits recruiters

Full-time employment holds less attraction than temporary contract work.

Engineering is in the grips of a recruitment crisis and the problem is getting worse. As our cover story this week shows, young teenagers are largely ignorant of what a career in engineering is all about, and the uninformed majority write it off as boring.

By the age of 16, many students have already opted out of science or maths A-levels, leaving the pool of those who have the qualifications to even consider a degree in engineering ever diminishing. And a large proportion of those who do take an engineering degree choose not to go into industry once they have graduated.

Not surprisingly, the numbers of engineering graduates leaving universities is dwindling, leading to an increasingly tough struggle among recruiters vying to attract the best new graduates to join their companies.

The tight labour market for graduates will be all too evident at this weekend’s National Engineering Recruitment Exhibition at Birmingham’s NEC – an annual opportunity for over 30 companies to try to recruit engineers. This year, demand is higher than ever, and competition fierce.

Not a sexy choice

‘There is a massive lack of qualified engineers with the right experience,’ says Simon Young, managing consultant at recruitment agency Michael Page. ‘The engineering industry is just not sexy enough to attract the number of graduates it needs.’ University figures show that while the number of British undergraduates who choose to study engineering increased by 6% in the past year, the drop-out rate before graduation was 12% – higher than for any other subject.

For many students, engineering is a difficult option. At the same time, a high proportion of those who can cope with the subject matter don’t go on to become engineers, opting instead for management consultancy or accountancy, which are perceived to offer better rewards.

Many of those at the show are acutely aware of the problem. Helen Connor, recruitment officer at metrology group Renishaw, says the sector’s image is part of the problem and this has been made worse in recent months by the media focusing on negative news, such as companies moving overseas or downsizing.

But high-tech companies such as Renishaw are still growing – it aims to take on around 100 graduates this year – and are trying to distance themselves from negative images of the profession.

The brightest UK graduates are in a ‘seller’s market’ where they are wooed by companies desperate to hire – ranging from established multinationals to small start-ups. Wendy Covell, recruitment manager at high-tech start-up Southampton Photonics, says the problem is made more difficult for her company because it is ‘operating at the pinnacle of new technology’, and as a result, cannot find many graduates with the relevant experience or training.

She hopes to attract up to 150 experienced engineers. As with many new companies, part of the deal will be the option of a pre-initial public offering of stock – the right to receive shares first if the company floats. Of course, the recent downturn in technology markets is causing many flotations to be shelved anyway.

Covell admits her company’s recruiting target is ambitious given the current climate. ‘Ours is a very new technology, therefore the experience just isn’t out there,’ she says.

International attraction

At the other end of the scale, international groups are hoping their size, global reach and varied career paths will be attraction enough for graduates.

David Thomas, UK human resources director for electrical engineer Alstom, usually recruits 60 to 80 graduates a year. Part of Alstom’s bid to get ahead of the competition has been to set up a partnership scheme with a handful of universities, including Manchester and Bath, from where students are given priority for placements and support with projects.

Like many larger employers, Alstom is hoping the chance to offer graduates international experience early in their careers will help it retain new recruits.Many companies, however, expect to have unfilled vacancies, and are starting to investigate ways round the employment problem. An increasing number of companies are turning to hiring contract engineers from agencies, and the contract market is expected to expand.

Using short-term contractors meets most recruitment needs while offering the possibility of extending contracts and training staff – but getting highly-paid contractors to become staff engineers is not easy.

If anything, the trend is moving in the opposite direction, with full-time employment holding less attraction than temporary contract work.