Work experience key to bridging grad employment gap

 David Docherty, CEO of the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) and chairman of Placer, explains how work experience can help tomorrow’s engineers transition from education into the workplace.

A recent CIPD report ‘The graduate employment gap: expectations versus reality’ revealed that talented engineering graduates, alongside their STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) peers, are more likely to be unemployed than other graduates.

work experience

Despite an increased government focus on STEM education, STEM students are struggling to step onto the employment ladder into graduate-level jobs.  Worryingly, there is a 6 per cent unemployment rate for engineering and technology students six months after graduation, compared to a national average of 4.9 per cent. The figures are similarly surprising for other STEM fields: mathematical science and physical science graduates also have an above-average unemployment rate at 6.5 per cent. For computer science graduates this rises to 8.6 per cent, almost double the national unemployment rate.

This is not just a concern for the individuals seeking work but also for the future of our economy which is reliant on quality STEM talent. The government’s new Industrial Strategy requires a flow of high-quality graduates to power the economy. And, crucially, it points to the need to increase opportunity for all students. But where does this leave us if the highly qualified STEM talent we need is unable to quickly and successfully enter the jobs market?

Skills gap?

The ‘skills gap’ is a well-worn phrase in the media and with demand for STEM skills high, we have seen increased investment into relevant educational programmes. Alongside this, there are also multiple initiatives, such as the upcoming Year of Engineering, raising the profile of the profession among young people. However, the graduate unemployment figures illustrate the importance of developing soft skills and employability attributes if we are to successfully bridge the skills gap.


The Institute of Engineering & Technology (IET) revealed in their Skills and Demand in Industry survey that 62 per cent of engineering employers say graduates don’t have the right skills for today’s workplace. This is particularly concerning when over half of engineering firms are looking for new engineering and technology recruits.

work experience

These are hardly new findings, and businesses must play a role in ways in which a twenty-two or twenty-three-year-old graduate might acquire employability. A key part of the solution is more quality work experience opportunities for engineering students to ensure that, alongside their education, students obtain the knowledge and skills needed to be workplace ready. Work experience is a valuable way to grow a pool of suitable future employees that can re-enter the workplace and more-or-less hit the ground running.

Make work experience, work

Work experience opportunities allow engineering employers to test drive individuals, assess their ability and train them with the specific skills and attributes needed, without the weight of commitment.

To feel the benefit that work experience offers in bringing talent into an organisation, it is critical that the placements offered are also structured and well-planned. All too often work experience can be low-level admin, or at the very worst, dogsbody tasks. Not only does this leave the student feeling undervalued and even disenfranchised with the organisation or the industry, it’s a long-term opportunity lost for the employer.

work experience

Having a thorough thought-out work plan will mean the individual can work without the need of constant monitoring, giving them a sense of independence which is crucial in the real workplace. Contact time should be quality, structured and informative in order to keep the individual engaged and time wasted to a minimum, essential especially for short placements.

Liaise with colleagues prior to the placement to unearth small and interesting projects that the individual can take ownership of. Choosing non-critical work that would benefit from a fresh, young perspective can be beneficial to both parties. Take time to understand what areas of the business the individual is interested in and work to develop skills in that area. That said, rotate them between departments so they can get an overview of the company and understand where their interests slot into the wider business.

Sourcing the right talent

It’s important to source the right talent to develop through work experience. Research from the National Centre for Universities and Business however, revealed most organisations cite word-of-mouth as the key channel to access work experience applicants. To widen the pool and attract a greater range of students into your organisation a structured process is needed, in which placements are advertised publicly.

This benefits the business by widening access to opportunities and helping to ensure young people are recruited on merit, not based on who they know. An even better solution is harnessing the power of new technologies. Platforms such as Placer – a new work experience app that directly connects businesses, students and universities and uses technology to reduce unconscious bias and to match students with employers based on their interests and skills alone.

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Equipping tomorrow’s engineers

Offering quality work experience is the most effective way for employers to source and connect with bright undergraduate talent. Offering an inspiring taster-day, week, month or even year-long placement can create a lasting relationship between you and a talented engineering student, possibly translating into a permanent job at the end of their degree.

As a result, engineering students will be exposed to more workplace opportunities and better develop the workplace-ready skills engineering firms, and our economy, are crying out for.

Placer is a new social enterprise created through a partnership between not-for-profit the National Centre for Universities and Business, Jisc, and Unite Students. It enables SMEs and start-ups to reach a diverse young talent pool of digitally native students with key skills, far beyond their word-of-mouth networks.