Closing the skills gap - materials graduates face career choices

Materials World magazine
30 Apr 2013

A decline in the number of materials science graduates is making it increasingly hard for UK companies to recruit engineers.

Everyone agrees that engineers have an important role to play in the economy. But the UK is falling behind. Universities need to double the number of engineering graduates entering the workforce annually if the UK is to keep apace with technological development.

A study by the Royal Society in London, UK has identified that the proportion of UK students on STEM postgraduate courses is not increasing as quickly as the number of overseas students on these courses. If this trend continues, it could lead to long-term skills shortages within the UK.

The effects of this worrying trend are already being felt. While 76% of UK manufacturers are actively recruiting, 41% of these firms are struggling to find candidates with the appropriate skills. Last year, a report from the House of Lords criticised the quality of STEM graduates leaving UK universities.

Dr David Field, partner at specialist materials science recruitment agency Materials Edge, has noticed a shortage of good graduates from British universities in recent years. ‘Filling a role takes much longer today than in 2008. Companies are less inclined to take on raw graduates and look for experience as well as qualifications,’ he explains. ‘Engineering companies and high-tech firms could lead the UK out of recession, but in many cases it is difficult for these firms to find suitable graduates,’ he adds. But why is this the case? Where are all the science and engineering graduates going?

Charlotte Vie, Materials and Corrosion Engineer at BP, graduated in 2011. After undertaking work experience at a marine engineering firm and completing an engineering course at school, Vie decided to study for a MSc in Natural Sciences at Cambridge before taking a graduate role as an engineer at BP. ‘I have always had an interest in science and engineering, but I had never heard of materials science before university and the role of an engineer wasn’t something I necessarily understood when I was at school,’ she explains.

While studying, she noticed that banking, consultancy and accounting firms heavily targeted science and engineering students. This perhaps explains why the numbers of STEM graduates doesn’t match the number entering the workforce at engineering and manufacturing firms. And who can blame these students? ‘Manufacturing and engineering don’t have the same glamorous image as banking and finance,’ Vie explains. ‘As a student with £30,000 of debt, it’s hard to say no to the higher salaries and bonuses,’ she admits.

But the perks of these roles can come at a cost, as Vie found when she tried an internship in procurement and supply chain management. ‘While I found the idea of a career in the city tempting, I missed the intellectual stimulation of a technical role,’ she explains. ‘As an engineer, I am continuously learning new things and have been given lots of opportunities to work on large-scale international projects.’ Luckily, it seems that despite the declining numbers overall, Vie and other graduates are still filtering through the system and taking up engineering roles.

Sobhan Abolghasemi studied Materials Science and Engineering at Imperial College, London, before completing a PhD in Stress Analysis and CFD of Flare Tips, also at Imperial. He now works as a materials and corrosion engineer at Shell in the Netherlands.

‘I must admit, I hadn’t even heard of materials science when I was considering university,’ he confesses. ‘It was only when I saw a turbine blade at an open day and learned about single crystal superalloys that I became interested in the topic’. Up until that point, Abolghasemi had been planning to study mechanical engineering, but decided on materials science as he thought it would open up more opportunities. It seems his decision paid off.

‘After finishing my PhD, I had the choice of working for BP in London, UK, or Shell in the Netherlands. There aren’t many materials engineers around so there are a lot of opportunities for the few that are,’ he says. But he admits that this plethora of offers is a problem for many smaller companies. ‘I think some smaller engineering and manufacturing firms cannot offer the challenging work that multinational companies do, and struggle to compete with the salary packages that graduates can find in the financial sector.’

So how can firms compete? ‘Promoting awareness of materials science at school and university level could go a long way to introduce new talents to the field,’ suggests Abolghasemi, ‘I know that I certainly wasn’t aware of the topic when I was at school.’

Materials testing, analysis and consultancy group Ceram, based in Stoke-on-Trent, UK, is one company actively hiring materials science and engineering graduates. Ian Buckley is Head of Innovation in Materials at the firm and says, ‘We see many benefits in hiring graduates. People with good backgrounds in materials, engineering and science help expand our existing knowledge base, with the added benefit of bringing a fresh, unhindered outlook on research and development.’

Ceram uses a number of methods to source graduates, including university campus visits, internet-based recruitment tools, direct advertising and graduate recruitment days at the company’s offices. ‘I would advise graduates looking to start a career in industry to make sure their CV contains not only their academic achievements, but also their experiences to date. We look for graduates with some commercial exposure – this may have been as simple as working during the summer vacation or even running the Student Union bar. These experiences all go some way to demonstrating skills in organising, leading and teamwork,’ says Buckley.

As for competition from banking and financial firms, Buckley seems confident that the right candidates will still find their way into engineering. ‘Lucrative careers in finance don’t always equate with job satisfaction. Science and engineering are exciting areas to work in and offer real job satisfaction,’ he explains.

And while the numbers of materials science graduates are far from promising, Buckley sees an encouraging development on the horizon. ‘Public awareness of science has increased with its popularisation on TV,’ he says. But educators and industry need to demonstrate how this basic science relates to the materials that shape the way we live.

If we can build on this momentum, then perhaps we might soon see the figures starting to change in favour of materials science. As Abolghasemi explains, ‘It is an exciting time to be a materials engineer. Engineering is at the heart of every field of innovation, including creating the next iPad or developing nuclear or renewable energy sources. If you want to be a part of that, then engineering is the way to go.’