Engineering needs to invest in work experience

Senior reporter

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.