Worried about career prospects in your sector or just unsure whether engineering is still for you? An engineering degree opens up doors to a number of options including non-STEM careers in law, finance and even public relations.
What happens if halfway through your engineering course you suddenly realise that your lifelong dream of digging for oil in Siberia isn’t actually the career path you wish to follow? Will you have to don a hardhat and a theodolite for the rest of your life, or have to do a u-turn and start from scratch? The answer to that is a resounding “no” because in choosing an engineering degree you are already armed to the teeth for pretty much any profession in the book – including one outside the STEM arena.
“People often take STEM degrees with pre-conceived ideas about where they will end up working in the future – which is a good thing. But life doesn’t always go according to plan,” explains Professor Andrew Hunter, Head of the College of Science, University of Lincoln. “We try to help students think outside of the box – just because you do an electrical engineering degree doesn’t mean you have to be an electrical engineer.”
That STEM graduates are by nature numerate and analytical and are trained in the importance of persistence, diligence and attention to detail means that they are very much in demand in the non-STEM sector. Many graduates have gone on to high-flying careers in law or in the City.
Consider the City?
“Often firms in the City prefer someone who has done a hardcore STEM degree to someone who’s done a business degree – because they know their candidate is already very analytical and can easily learn about the business side of things,” says Professor Hunter. “I have an ex-graduate who did a PhD in computer science who now works in the City earning a fortune.”
Not so many years ago STEM degrees comprised mostly of exams with a few small assignments thrown in. But in today’s increasingly complex global market and unpredictable economic climate many universities are restructuring their STEM courses.
“We do understand what the real world is like and what type of skills people need to have,” states Professor Hunter. “The perception of shy geek who can’t talk to people is phenomenally inaccurate. Nowadays STEM students do a lot of group work and are trained to work in teams and to communicate with computers and people.”
Engineers provide invaluable skills
Surprisingly another area where an engineer’s skills are invaluable is in the world of public relations (PR). Kat Osman studied geological engineering and is now associate director of Lunch PR, which specialises in computer games.
“To be a good PR you have to be quite practical and organised – and I think engineering definitely helped with that,” she explains. “Not in terms of having a tidy desk but mentally being more together so my ‘to do’ lists are always in my head. Obviously there’s the practical maths side – I can easily balance budgets and accounts – and then there is being logical. Old school PRs might be good at getting the coverage and talking to journalists - but maybe not as efficient at getting their coverage reports done – a factor which is ingrained in me.”
Career change options
Equally encouraging is that people with several years professional engineering experience under their belts are also in demand within the non-STEM sector.
In the 1980s Lord Sainsbury realised that many overseas companies, particularly in Germany and Japan, were highly successful largely because their senior executives and boards included qualified engineers. And this included blue chip companies.
Traditionally the majority of UK boardrooms comprised directors with financial and legal qualifications. Lord Sainsbury, however, portentously recognised that the key to a company avoiding disaster in times of economic crisis was for its board to also include people who had been trained to have a broad perspective in risk analysis - an integral part of the skill set of professional engineers.
Rise to the boardroom
In 1987 Lord Sainsbury set up the Sainsbury Management Fellowship (SMF) scheme to help bring about change in British business culture and encourage UK engineers to become leaders in industry. The SMF scheme awards scholarships to engineers with leadership qualities to enable them to gain a Masters degree in Business Administration (MBA).
“The skill of a ceo is being able to manage all the different facets of a company and also balance and drive it towards to a successful future,” explains James Raby, secretary of the SMF. “You can apply the same techniques for solving engineering problems to the inner workings of companies as they’re all complex systems.”
Raby who qualified as an electrical engineer and went on to a successful career working in project engineering and programme management now combines the skills he gleaned with his MBA as a venture capitalist.
“If you take an experienced engineer who properly understands how a complex system works and give them a business degree in finance, law, marketing, strategy then you’re onto a winner.”
Don’t forget your roots
And if you do decide to move into a different industry you’re not closing the door on returning to engineering at any stage. Engineers will always be welcomed back into the fold and many employers would love a potential employee to have a wide range of skills and experience under their belt.
One of the best ways to keep the door open is to retain your specialist status as an IET member.
Membership will allow you to keep up to date with specialist sectors, attend networking events, further - and keep up to date – with your engineering education and support you as you work towards professional registration.