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Early career report: what are engineering graduates doing now?

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Three recent graduates talk about their experience at work since leaving university.

In the past few months, I’ve spoken to three successful graduates from Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems and International Nuclear Services (INS). I wanted to hear directly from them what it takes to be a great engineer, how to land a job at a great company and what’s good and not so good about working at these companies.

Sometimes graduate engineers can be misunderstood. They still run up against the perception that engineering is a hands-on activity not suitable for those with academic ability.

Yes, engineers do work in construction and the other stereotypical areas – but as technology gains more momentum in our daily lives, engineers have become techier than ever. For example, Rhianne Boag at INS creates finite element computer models of nuclear transport packages and simulates accident conditions to analyse their integrity and performance. That doesn’t sound like a spanner-wielding job.

Katy Pilkington, a weapon systems engineer specialising in configuration management at BAE Systems, told me about the issues in early education with engineering undergraduates. Just how specialised can universities be with their engineering courses as engineering-related jobs need more diverse skillsets – do they teach generic engineering courses and encourage students to be jacks of all trades? If so, how does this impact on the job that they want? She tells me there are two parts to ‘engineering’: the fundamental maths, physics, chemistry, psychology, ergonomics etc that are the building blocks and the bit that binds all these things together, which applies the knowledge. And as well as improving undergraduate courses, Katy told me that changes need to be made even earlier on in one’s education: in schools. Before you even pick a degree, you need to have balanced information given to you by people who know the engineering sector. Are careers advisors up to date with what graduate jobs this country needs to fill?

Another thing that graduates in the engineering sector find important in their careers is the ability to progress. For example Katy tells me about the amount of subject knowledge that is needed compared to other disciplines. Rhianne explains that progression to improve her own capability is more important than the financial aspect. Altogether, all three graduates had very interesting views on their jobs and the current state of the industry.

Steven Young, Rolls-Royce

Steven, a 27-year-old power systems team leader within Rolls-Royce, told me about his journey into the world of engineering and what the responsibilities are in his role.

E&T: How long have you been in your role?

SY: I have been working in my current role for just over two years. Before that I was an electrical engineer within the Power Systems team, which I did for about six months.

Before that I was a graduate on the industry’s Nuclear Graduates scheme.

E&T: What is your role in a nutshell?

SY: My role in a nutshell is to be a facilitator – I ensure that everyone around me can do their job.

My team have lots of different interfaces and stakeholders, with access to the internal and external customers, the end users, and the supply chain. This means I have to stay on top of lots of different things to make sure everyone knows what’s going on, what’s changed and who needs information or help from everyone else.

Luckily for me I have a great team of guys who pull together and help each other out trying to make my job as easy as possible (although it doesn’t always feel that way!).

E&T: What did you study at university and where did you study?

SY: I studied electrical and electronic engineering at the University of the West of England.

E&T: Is your role related to what you studied at university? If not, how did you end up where you are?

SY: My role is related to my degree, although I only use parts of what I learnt. I typically have a system-level view of the detail as I need to make technical decisions and give direction without needing to know all of the technical detail.That’s where my team come in.

E&T: What is your favourite part of the job that you do?

SY: Being able to influence and change something, to give the customer what they want.

Knowing you are working on a multi-million pound project and seeing decisions you make come to fruition is very rewarding.

E&T: What don’t you like so much?

SY: The decision-making process can be a little slow at times. This can seem frustrating, but governance takes time to ensure that good engineering decisions are made and once you have come to terms with this you learn to plan it into your work and ask the difficult questions up front.

E&T: What advice would you give to any budding graduates who want to work for Rolls-Royce? (Be honest!)

SY: Whenever I attend a recruitment activity, whether that is assessment centre or direct appointment, I am always a little shocked by the lack of electrical and electronics engineers, so if you guys are out there make yourselves heard and come along to our recruitment sessions and apply!

We are always looking for great engineers; we just can’t seem to get you through the door for an interview. Having spoken to a number of people in human resources, this is down to a number of factors: whether it’s not following up on calls, not doing the next part of the online assessment or just not turning up on the day for the interview.

Katy Pilkington, BAE Systems

Katy Pilkington is a weapon systems engineer, specialising in configuration management, at BAE Systems. We talked about the problems students face today in the fast-changing world of engineering. There’s so much to choose from and so much to study. How do you decide what path to follow and what do you do if it doesn’t go the way you want?

E&T: Do undergraduate courses encourage engineers to be a jack of all trades? If so, does this impact on finding a job after graduation in the field you want?

KP: In my view there are two parts to ‘Engineering’: 1) The fundamentals: the maths, physics, chemistry, psychology, and ergonomics etc that are the building blocks. 2) The bit that binds all these things together, which applies the knowledge.

The courses I did were very in-depth on the fundamentals (mainly maths – lots of maths), but I felt they lacked a bit when it came to bringing all of this knowledge together. I wanted those links as that’s what truly enables us as engineers to problem-solve! So no, I don’t think it encouraged us to be jacks of all trades, I think it pushed us into very specific career paths for the degrees we undertook, and was very blinkered to other avenues. This, in my opinion, held me back for some time.

E&T: How could undergraduate courses be improved to help graduates find suitable jobs?

KP: I really think that the answer lies in better careers advice, and that needs to come from schools, before you pick a degree.

I remember my careers advisor at school looking on in amazement when I announced proudly that I wanted to study aeronautical engineering – she even said “so what’s that then?” to me. I was very unimpressed, even more so after I found out that aeronautical engineering really wasn’t my cup of tea; maybe better careers advice would have stopped me from making that error. I also think undergraduate courses don’t focus enough on the transferrable and soft skills, such as ‘how do you write a decent set of requirements for that design?’. That’s the stuff that’s going to be needed when you start work!

E&T: Why did you want to continue to find work in the engineering sector?

KP: I love engineering. It really is as simple as that.

I love aircraft and supporting our armed forces, and I love making a difference. It can be frustrating, but I love it nonetheless.

I am currently in a role which involves improving the way we do things, using Lean techniques and that is my dream role! It’s still engineering as it relies on my subject knowledge and learning other fundamentals too (such as psychology, management science etc) to get the best outcome, and I’m not sure I have ever done as much problem-solving as I am doing now!

E&T: What’s the most frustrating thing about being an engineering graduate?

KP: Actually, it’s the amount of knowledge of your subject that is needed to progress in your career compared to other disciplines (project management, for example). Working in an engineering company you see it all the time and people get promoted rapidly if they move from engineering to project management. It’s sad really, as it’s not much of an encouragement to stay in engineering. Personally I can’t see the attraction!

Rhianne Boag, International Nuclear Services

25-year-old Rhianne Boag has been an engineering analyst at INS for just over a year after being sponsored as a graduate between 2013 and 2015. She filled me in on what it’s like to be in a graduate role and hold a lot of responsibility.

E&T: What is your role in a nutshell?

RB: I create finite element computer models of nuclear transport packages and simulate accident conditions to analyse their integrity and performance.

E&T: What did you study at university and where?

RB: I studied mechanical engineering for five years at the University of Strathclyde.

E&T: Is your role related to what you studied at university? If not, how did you end up where you are?

RB: It is. It involves a lot of analytical work and problem-solving for new and evolving designs.

E&T: What is your favourite element of the job that you do?

RB: I really enjoy the responsibility I have, with support from my colleagues, knowing that the analysis I run can help to support a package licence or safety case, without having to do real-life testing on large, expensive pieces of equipment.

E&T: What don’t you like so much?

RB: My role is predominantly office-bound to run the computer simulations. There aren’t too many opportunities to get out and interface with the ‘real world’.

E&T: What advice would you give to any budding graduates who want to work for INS?

RB:  INS is a really exciting and diverse company which prides itself on delivering specialist nuclear services. You don’t need to have a nuclear background, and don’t even need to be an engineer as there are many different departments that all pull together. It is a relatively small company which means you definitely get treated as an individual and not just a number.

E&T: How important is career progression to you and how do you go about it?

RB: I’m content with my role for now while I am still learning the job but in the long term I want to improve my own capability and be able to help others in the same way that I have had help and support.

INS is really great at supporting its staff through professional development; in my case towards becoming a chartered engineer. The best way to progress is to put your hand up for opportunities that arise, don’t sit back and wait on them being handed to you.

E&T:  Is there really a skills gap in the engineering sector? Is it as bad as the media says or is the ‘lack of engineers’ down to something else?

RB: There are definitely two sides to this argument; there is a skills gap in that many of the engineers who have the knowledge and experience are all approaching retirement in the next few years. I think the lack of awareness of the diversity in engineering careers doesn’t help, and often graduates and younger people can be left feeling confused over which path to follow.

Inspiration is as important as opportunity; young people need to see people with experience doing these jobs and be able to speak with them to understand what this career path really could entail.

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