IET survey finds employers dissatisfied with engineering graduates

Materials World magazine
2 Nov 2016

A survey of engineering and technology employers suggests a disconnect between university courses and needs of industry. Simon Frost looks at the report’s findings, and what one university is doing to remedy the problem. 

More than half of engineering employers in the UK feel that the content of engineering and technology degrees does not suit their needs, according to a new report by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET). 

Although 52% of the employers responding to the Skills and Demand in Industry 2016 Survey said that they were currently recruiting new engineering and technology staff, 53% have recently experienced problems recruiting skilled graduates, while 57% are struggling to hire senior engineers with 5–10 years’ experience. 

One of the resounding responses of industry was that more companies should provide work experience to those in education and training – 91% supported an increase in engineering work experience, while 76% said that all engineering and technology companies should be compelled to do so. 

But do such surveys actually inform how universities tailor their programmes? ‘In short, they should,’ Andy Smith, Programme Leader for Clay, Cement and Concrete Technology courses at the University of Derby, UK, told Materials World. ‘Universities don’t exist in a bubble and employability is a major selection criteria for students looking at where to study. The graduate, with degree in hand and transitioning into the world of work, needs to be in a position to show not only a range of transferable skills but also, in vocational sectors, specific skills that make them employable in that sector.’

The University of Derby’s Mineral Products Centre, he said, has a close relationship and regular meetings with industry partners including Aggregate Industries, Tarmac, Hanson and Breedon/Hope. But Smith concurs with the report’s suggestion that a disconnect exists between the majority of students studying for a degree in the UK and the employer that they end up working for. ‘The relationship is not made until after graduation, and these stages in their educational and career development are often isolated from each other,’ he said. 

Apprenticeship solution

To improve this, Derby has introduced Higher Apprenticeships at Foundation Degree level and, Smith said, will ‘almost certainly’ progress onto the Degree Apprenticeship route, subject to the Government’s changes to the way apprenticeships are structured and funded. 

The UK Government’s Apprenticeship Levy (see Materials World, October 2015, page 12), scheduled to begin in spring 2017, will take what is essentially a tax of 0.5% from all companies with a pay bill of £3 million or more to be shared out among companies of all sizes as a budget for training apprentices. 

Derby’s Degree Apprenticeship and Higher Apprenticeship routes comprise both academic study and on-the-job training. A company
in the desired field recruits the student as an employee and pays for the student’s tuition fees, as well as providing pay and normal employee benefits. 

Smith explains, ‘Once the new Apprenticeship Levy is finalised, employers will be able to offset their levy payments against their apprenticeship fees, and this will work for both big businesses and SMEs looking to access these training packages. The employer also gets the graduates with the desired skill sets needed for the company, as they are instrumental in identifying, developing and delivering them.’ 

Meanwhile, the student-employee attends formal studies at a higher education institution via a combination of distance learning and face-to-face tutorial time over three or five years, depending on the course. ‘Students applying for these programmes require the same academic qualifications (A-levels or equivalent) that would get them access to most typical undergraduate programmes at university – it is in no way a dumbed-down route. Actually, over the three or five years they work a lot harder, as the programmes are a balance between formal studies at university and on-the-job training with the employer,’ said Smith.

The IET report notes that 53% of employers don’t know what benefits the levy will bring to their organisation – perhaps this will change in the run-in to its implementation. 

A problem of diversity

Troublingly, the report also found that just 9% of engineering and technology staff in the UK are female – a statistic that caught the attention of the Twitterverse, with the #9PercentIsNotEnough hashtag sparking wide discussion on the topic. 

Andy Taylor, Chief Mechanical Engineer at Amec Foster Wheeler said, ‘I think the real issue is there aren’t enough women going into engineering in the education system. I have discussed this with a female colleague who gets involved in diversity promotion to school around women in engineering. The main problem we see is not enough people going in at undergraduate level.’ However, the report also found that 63% of companies do not have gender diversity initiatives in place. 

62% of engineering and technology employers surveyed were concerned about graduate skills 

42% were concerned about the impact of Brexit on recruitment in the next five years

9% of engineering and technology staff are female

40% of employers agree they could do more to recruit from diverse backgrounds

73% do not have ethnic or LGBT diversity initiatives in place