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What is it like to be a UK engineering graduate in 2013?

Engineering graduates are in greater demand than ever but is even the available crop meeting the expectations of employers?

On paper the signs look promising for UK engineering graduates: the economy seems to be recovering; manufacturing is bouncing back; resource shortages pose interesting challenges; environmental threats require engineering solutions. Demand for engineers in general is growing, from industry, commerce and the public sector.

However, relatively few new graduates end up pursuing engineering as a career. A survey carried out by the Higher Education Careers Services Unit for graduates from 2011 makes for interesting reading. Of the 60 per cent of civil engineering graduates that went into full-time UK employment 57.1 per cent started careers as engineering professionals. It is worth noting, however, that 20.9 per cent went on to further study. The figures are similar across the board. Of the 62.8 per cent of electrical and electronic engineering graduates in full-time UK employment 36.2 per cent became engineering professionals. Sixteen per cent stayed in education. Of the 63.2 per cent of mechanical engineering graduates going into full-time employment 65.8 per cent chose engineering. Here 18 per cent went on to further study.

According to EngineeringUK, an independent organisation that promotes the contribution engineering makes to society, there will be 87,000 jobs requiring engineering skills each year in Britain up to 2020, yet only around 46,000 engineering students graduate each year. A third of high-tech manufacturers in the UK have to recruit engineers from overseas. And a shortfall of more than 40,000 apprentices per year has emerged.

Attempting to remedy this problem, Semta – the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies – has helped to boost apprentice numbers from 1,035 in 2011-12 to 1,393 by April 2013. "Large companies are recognising the value of engineering apprenticeships," says Bill Twigg, SEMTA's apprenticeship director. "We're getting people to migrate over to the area. It's a good time to be an engineer."

The problem remains encouraging people into the profession. Politically there appears to be some will to address this issue. Business Minister Michael Fallon has stated that "engineering is fundamental to the UK's economic progress, so it's critical that we ensure there are enough skilled people to meet demand." Business Secretary Vince Cable has pointed out an "enormous gap" between the number of engineering graduates and the demand for engineers.

"In some occupations we are building up a substantial stock of graduate unemployment," he says. "The mismatch between demand and supply is often quite extreme." This mismatch has been heightened by a historical quirk: engineering recruitment fell away sharply in the 1980s as Thatcherism eroded the UK's manufacturing base, meaning that we are on the brink of a generational slump in engineers, as those who qualified in the late 1970s start to retire.

To combat this, the government and engineering organisations have launched initiatives such as the 'Big Bang Fair', the 'Make It In Great Britain' initiative and the 'Tomorrow's Engineers' programme, promoting the profession and drawing people to consider it as a career. But more needs to be done. There remains a chronic shortage of science teachers in UK schools, with 4,500 extra physics teachers needed, out of a target workforce of 10,000. Only 73 per cent of maths teachers for students between the ages of 12 and 18 have a relevant tertiary qualification and less than half the students who get a top grade in GCSE physics go on to study at AS level. In 2011, half the co-educational state schools in England had no girl A level physics students, according to the most recent figures in the EngineeringUK 2013 report. According to Jackson, however, the tide is turning as more and more prospective students spot the opportunities. "Awareness is starting to come," he says. "We have seen an 8.4 per cent increase in applications for engineering courses in universities this year [2013]. Apprenticeships are now well known. So the progress has been very positive."

Rising tertiary education fees have placed increasing pressure on students to find remunerative work once they graduate, in order to pay back their loans and earn a reasonable living. The days of Media Studies and Sociology courses as a route to spending three years drinking and watching daytime television may be coming to a close. Certainly the attention paid to technology stars such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg will have filtered into the consciousness of the current student cohort, even if half of them would rather be the next Jessie J or Lionel Messi.

But encouraging more students to study STEM subjects is only part of the picture. According to the IET's recent survey 'Engineering and Technology Skills and Demand in Industry', 42 per cent of the responding companies stated that recent engineering, IT and technical recruits did not meet reasonable skill expectations. Furthermore, 25 per cent felt that the content of engineering, IT and technical degrees do not adequately meet industry needs.

Speaking at a Skills Shortage Summit organised by the IET in London in June this year, Juergen Maier, managing director of Siemens UK, commented on the situation. "We employ about 13,500 people here in the UK. About half of them have some form of engineering qualification. This year we have taken on about 160 formal apprentices and about 100 technical graduates into our organisation.

"There are still some major challenges in getting more engineering skills into our profession. We simply don't attract enough young people into our industry and the result of that is we don't have enough people going into apprenticeships or graduates and ultimately we are going to have this sort of skills shortage."

Maier went on to point out that the issue is not limited to university graduates but also applies to those in engineering apprenticeships. "With the vocational training that we do end up delivering we often don't focus the training on the areas that industry needs," he said. "It's not demand-led enough. It's more the FE colleges defining the training and delivering it rather than the employers really creating the demand for the right skills.

"We have created our own training academy up in the north east and it is actually quite brilliant in terms of training apprentices but it shouldn't be Siemens that needs to do it. It should be something that we can do together with the education providers and government."

The UK has world-leading scientists and researchers in many key areas, according to EngineeringUK, including synthetic biology, energy-efficient computing, energy harvesting, grapheme, life sciences, nanotechnology and digital technology. Here, the practical applications that have reached us in recent times include 3G and 4G mobile products and services, along with high performance computing. The emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China will provide ever greater markets for such goods and services as the years go by, placing higher demands on engineering skills both here and overseas. The greater the complexity of the systems upon which we all rely to communicate, to purchase everyday items, to travel and to live, the more we need engineers.

With the combined turnover of UK engineering enterprises topping £1tr, there will be something for a great many people in the years to come, surpassing the current 5.4'million people employed by more than 540,000 engineering companies across the country. The final pieces in the puzzle are, of course, attracting the right students and giving them the correct training.

How I got my job – The masters student

Ross Davison, graduate communication engineer, Atkins

Ross studied computer and electronic systems at Strathclyde University. During his fourth year as an undergrad he began to apply for roles, before deciding to stay on a further year and complete a master's. "It opened a few more doors when I started applying the second time round," he notes.

He began applying to graduate schemes halfway through his master's, and used many sources including online newsletters and books listing the top engineering employers, to which he'd then fire off online applications in small batches, wait for responses, fine-tune his application and then send off another set.

Ross' weakness was telephone interviews and at first it was a hurdle he never seemed to pass. He found that he struggled to answer questions on competencies, but overcame this problem by taking advantage of mock interview opportunities at university and listening to podcasts on applying for jobs.

Over a four-month period Ross had applied for nine positions, before eventually being offered two roles, "one in Manchester with Network Rail, but ideally I wanted to be in Glasgow so I held back until I heard from Atkins. I found out about the company through a friend who'd been offered a job there. I thought I'd have a look at what they do and discovered they had the ideal job for me. My master's was communications based, which I'd really been enjoying. I'd been applying for electrical/electronic jobs up to that point, but when this came up I knew it was what I really wanted to do."

How I got my job – The temp

Naomi Mitchison, hardware engineer, Selex ES

After completing her MEng in electronic and electrical engineering at Edinburgh University in 2009, Naomi took temporary work in a café, sending off a job application every couple of weeks. It was only after six months that she left to focus on finding a "full-time career job".

She had started a half-hearted job search while still at university, but coursework and finals got in the way, and she wasn't very committed.

"I wasn't sure whether I wanted to go into engineering as a career, and the engineering jobs I'd found didn't really appeal," she explains. "Once I decided to put my head down I spent about a month or two applying." Naomi spent a few hours a day online, looking for jobs and filling in forms via job sites like Milkround and Monster.

"I probably sent about six or seven 'proper' applications off, with a couple of easier or more unlikely ones along the way. Looking back now, I don't think my job search was particularly efficient. I was looking at general job sites, where it took a lot of effort to find electronic-specific jobs," she notes.

"Because I'd been careful with the applications I put in, I knew when offered [the role of hardware engineer at Thales] that this was something I wanted to do," she highlights. "I worked there for two years. Eventually deciding to move back to Edinburgh, I changed jobs and now work in a similar role at Selex ES."

How I got my job – The outsider

Pat McDivitt, engineer at Ford

A global traveller who is plying his trade on the opposite side of the world from his home country, Pat McDivitt arrived in the UK in mid-2012 with an engineering degree from the University of Western Sydney. He found the market surprisingly open to him, with plenty of interviews lining up. His two-year visa was a problem, as companies wanted to feel they could reap a longer-term reward from training him.

Before long however, McDivitt found a job at Ford cars. "It hadn't occurred to me, the amazing range of jobs that were available in London," he says. "London really is an international hub, there's so much investment coming in: companies want to be here and a lot of people can be successful here."

Despite the recession that has hung over Europe for years, McDivitt has found companies in London are hiring plenty of new staff. "They don't seem frightened of the economic situation. Engineering work is somewhere between necessity and indulgence. Not everyone needs fast cars, but everyone needs infrastructure," he points out. The UK seems to have plenty of both going on, he says.

How I got my job – The high-flyer

Finlay McPhail, intern at Shell

Currently McPhail is busy working on his dissertation while interning with Shell in the Netherlands, confidently expecting to join the Anglo-Dutch oil giant later in 2013 on a starting salary of more than £35,000.

Another job offer from BP sits in his in-tray, along with another potential opening at Arup & Partners. But Arup is only offering £26,000 and working for Shell rather than BP would mean "I don't have to go to Aberdeen," he says with evident relief.

This is, admittedly, the very top end of the engineering graduate pyramid – Imperial is routinely voted the world's number one engineering faculty – and McPhail has a CV bursting with exciting extras. Along with fellow Imperial undergraduates he helped devise a solar electricity scheme for Rwandan villagers, called e.quinox, and has a richly cosmopolitan background, attending schools in the United States and Switzerland.

"Shell is spending $30bn a year on capital projects," he says. "Demand in oil and gas keeps going up, whereas there are fewer jobs in banking."

How I got my job – The self-starter

Mansoor Hamayun, founder of e.quinox and BBOXX

Hamayun took the risky entrepreneurial route, founding e.quinox and then BBOXX, which also manufactures solar energy systems. Motivated by the fact that a third of the emerging world's households do not have electricity, Hamayun and two colleagues used their engineering skills to bring electricity to previously unserved communities.

A graduate of Imperial College London, he found that studying in the UK had significant advantages, leading to greater employability: "The UK is very good at cross-transfer of skills," he says. "You get a lot of different career options with an engineering degree, into financial services for example. The skill set on the quantitative and analytic side is something you won't find in an economist. And with the Stock Exchange now operating on cloud-computing systems, companies need engineers to understand how it works and to build systems to compete with one another."

In an area like private equity, engineers can prove highly adept at analysing whether an investee company's products are likely to work in the future. "You're certainly not limited to a certain job by your studies," says Hamayun. While programmers were the alpha employees of the late 1990s and early 2000s, being an engineer is now cool again, he argues.

"Start-up culture and companies like Tesla has encouraged a lot of graduates to pursue an engineering career path," he says. Whereas engineering used to be about maintaining and regulating mechanical systems, it is now more creative and opportunities are global, he says.

How I got my job – The online searcher

Stuart Curtis, mechanical engineering consultant, Cambridge Design Partnership

Stuart began applying for jobs during the final year of his master's in mechanical engineering at the University of Southampton. His first application was sent off in November, however he didn't land the role he wanted until the following June.

"I applied to quite a range of jobs, from graduate schemes in big multinationals through to several engineering consultancies. I had a few face-to-face interviews which went no further and also had several 'no-replies', which can be quite disheartening because you have no idea why you weren't chosen and have nothing to improve on. When it's a job application, it's about you and becomes very personal. It's almost an attack on your own character so it's hard to bounce back and think I need to move on and go to the next place," he notes.

Stuart searched for jobs online using sites like Gradcracker, and also put his CV on engineering-specific websites, which was how he came across the CDP role.

But before he'd heard of CDP, Stuart had a tough decision to make. One application had led to a final interview; however after speaking with employees at the assessment day he'd come to the decision that this wasn't the position for him.

"It was managerial rather than hands-on engineering, which was what I wanted. It was a scary call to make as I didn't have a job anywhere else at this point. I was physically shaking when I was on the phone to him. The recruiter told me I was making the worst decision of my career! It ended up being the right decision though, as when I interviewed with CDP everything seemed to click."

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