The Secret Graduate Engineer: So what do you do?

MortarboardEngineers are apparently in greater demand than ever before yet many graduates report stiff competition for plum jobs. Our Secret Graduate Engineer offers an insider’s view on industry’s skills paradox.

You’re chatting away when the classic question arises: “So what do you do?”

Assuming you’re not speaking to another engineer, you’ll probably hear a polite “ohh”, followed by a blank look after giving your job title. Not a surprise considering how niche most job titles can be, especially in technical professions. I was recently asked the same question while surrounded by the engineers I’d studied with. Unlike many, they got the general idea of what I did yet, to my surprise, I was confronted with the exact same blank look when responding to the follow-up question: “So who do you work for?”

We all dream of building the “next Blackbird” but it’s worth remembering that you don’t have to work for a household name to play a role on major projects

It struck me as odd that nobody in the room had heard of my employer. It operates in both the sector and city my friends had studied in, is a multinational, and had been hunting for graduates just like those around me. If anyone should have heard of this company surely it would have been them.

Turning it around, however, how many aerospace companies hiring graduates in the UK could I name off the top of my head? I don’t know about you, dear reader, but if I was in a hurry I’d probably only reach ten. Come to think of it, the work I did only saw the light of day as part of the supply chain of another, bigger company.

It wasn’t until I’d run out of luck with many of the heavily subscribed graduate schemes that I seriously began to ask who’s really working ‘under the bonnet’?

An apparent paradox is often reported in the pages of The Engineer. On the one hand, we have firms calling out for recruits to fill their ranks. On the other, we have droves recounting how fierce the competition is for places at the companies they apply to.

Perhaps the fact that I – and most graduates I know – applied to the same five or so big name companies as our first port of call goes some way to explaining this. It wasn’t until I’d run out of luck with many of the heavily subscribed graduate schemes that I seriously began to ask who’s really working ‘under the bonnet’ when it comes to the machines and systems I really want to work on?

We all imagine at one time or another building the Blackbird, the next F1 car or nuclear reactor. Why wouldn’t we? Each is a technological wonder, yet it’s worth remembering that, often, it’s only the last company to touch it that puts their name on it.

As for me? Well, four months on and nobody in the pub has heard of who employs me, but I can sip my drink knowing that my work is hurtling somewhere over the Atlantic all the same.