SEMTA plays down problems with engineering postgraduates

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Industry experts have played down the problems with UK postgraduate education highlighted in a new report — at least when it comes to engineering.

The Higher Education Commission (HEC) this week warned that the UK was facing a ‘perfect storm’ of conditions that would lead to an economically damaging shortage of postgraduate-educated workers.

However, SEMTA — the sector skills council for the advanced manufacturing and engineering sectors — highlighted the need to improve graduate recruitment as the critical issue facing the engineering sector.

The HEC’s independent inquiry into postgraduate education found that higher graduate debt and more limited access to career development loans were discouraging UK students from continuing their education.

The report said this was out of step with the UK’s ambition to become ‘the leading knowledge-based economy of the world’ and that postgraduates were an important factor in attracting companies to locate high-value operations in Britain.

Without improvements to the system, the HEC warned, companies might be forced to recruit more workers from overseas or even relocate to countries with higher-skilled workforces.

While engineering and advanced manufacturing might seem to be an area where highly skilled workers would be likely to be in high demand, SEMTA instead pointed to the problem of high numbers of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) graduates entering professions not related to their degrees.

‘There is a need for higher-level skills in the advanced manufacturing and engineering sector and this needs to be hardwired into the UK’s strategy for economic growth,’ SEMTA chief executive Sarah Sillars told The Engineer in a statement.

‘However, according to the IET’s 2012 Skills & Demand in Industry, which covers the engineering and IT sectors, only 11 per cent of new recruits are forecast to be at postgraduate level. This compares with demand in the next 12 months for experienced staff running at 57 per cent of new recruits, new graduates at 20 per cent or school leavers at 13 per cent.

‘The critical issue for the advanced manufacturing sector is how to attract people who graduate in STEM subjects, given that people with these qualifications are in high demand in other sectors. Around 40 per cent of STEM graduates are not working in STEM roles.’

A recent report from the Royal Academy of Engineering found that the UK would need 100,000 new STEM graduates every year until 2020 just to maintain current employment numbers but that it was only producing 90,000 a year, including international students, and that a quarter of engineering students choose jobs in other sectors.

The HEC study also called Britain the ‘global capital of education outsourcing’ and warned that an over-reliance on international students could worsen the shortage of UK-based postgraduates as they return to their home countries to work.

The report called for the government to establish a taskforce to examine the feasibility of a state-backed postgraduate loan scheme.