Despite an increasing focus on employability in university degree programmes – with initiatives aimed at preparing students better for the demands of graduate life – industry still consistently reports gaps between its needs and the capabilities of new engineering graduate talent.
The IET’s Skills and Demand in Industry reports, published every two years, reveal a lack of work-ready capability across both technical and professional ‘transferrable’ skills for engineering graduates. Gaps are identified in both practical and technical expertise, but also in underpinning skills such as communication, analytical, teamwork and leadership skills.
Why are these skills shortages still such a problem?
First, there’s an issue of perception vs. reality. Skills are often referred to with different names in education and across industry sectors, so that a graduate’s CV might not speak the same language as employers. And worse, engineering graduates are often equipped with skills but not an ability to recognise and effectively articulate them in ways that relate them to industry contexts.
Second, we see students with strong technical knowledge, but not the intellectual capabilities derived from integrating that learning to deploy it in analysis, creating solutions and exercising judgement. In short, we see graduates who might succeed in an engineering pub quiz, but find it challenging to break into a multi-faceted real-world problem, determine which knowledge to draw on, and integrate that knowledge to create a solution.
That lack of integration relates to a third possible problem for courses and learning experiences: the learning experiences of students are often highly academic, too narrowly focused, and not reflective of the world of work. This means that graduates who do apply their learning do so in a different context from that in which they will operate post-graduation, and their knowledge falls within a traditional disciplinary boundary that is not reflective of the way engineering disciplines interact in workplace contexts.
The leadership gap reflects many graduates’ lack of appreciation of their own agency, and a lack of confidence – as junior members of teams – to suggest and drive positive changes based on new knowledge they bring to a business, especially in the SME sector. This leads to frustration: business leaders recognise that engineering graduates come to them with knowledge that they hope will impact their business, but the impact is low because the graduate is not empowered to advance new ideas.
Finally, and importantly, the problem is not just with universities, but with industry, too. With the best will in the world, graduates can never be entirely prepared for specific roles in industry: universities are providing foundational training to get students started. Industry has a role to play in supporting the transition from that baseline into the specialised roles in which it places graduate talent. We need to ensure that work-based training for graduates seamlessly integrates with their university learning, and that opportunities for CPD allow them to keep learning and remain committed to their professional development.
So how do we finally address these skills gaps?
Education providers need to build more collaborations between industry and education that go beyond advisory roles and conversations, and actively engage industry partners directly in learning experiences for students. In this way, we can create authentic, real-world learning experiences that are interdisciplinary, and foster application of learning and skills, so that students are equipped to do engineering, not just know about it. Infusing these opportunities with training and development in professional, transferrable skills – which can be more naturally taught and developed in real-world projects, also contributes to better preparing graduates for the demands of industry life.
Importantly, this approach needs to be core to the students’ learning experience, and not a one-off bolted on enhancement an otherwise traditional learning experience of lecture theatres and exams. This is the model that my own institution, NMITE – a start-up higher education provider in Hereford – is pioneering. Our students learn in a studio environment, with no lecture theatres in the building. They work 9-5 days to reflect the workplace, all modules are built around real challenge projects, linked to industry partners, and we assess learning through tasks typical of a professional engineering role, rather than by formal exams in exam halls – all to ensure that our MEng graduates are work-ready in just 3 years.
From industry’s perspective, we need companies to actively seek engagement with education. In the 2019 IET survey, only 26% of companies reported doing this, but this is the single biggest impact industry could make in addressing its own skills shortages. Opportunities include providing authentic learning experiences for students, helping to contextualise and shape learning so it aligns with industry needs, and upskilling academic staff to ensure they are connected to developments in industry. Importantly, this works best through partnerships: industry supplies the challenges and opportunities for students, and our educators will help shape them into learning experiences. So if you don’t know where to start, but are willing to be part of the solution, just talk to us – its when we work closely together that we can create the kind of learning that will effect the change we all want to see.
Industry can also help through strengthening and expanding work placement provision. Uptake in years in industry as part of degree programmes is increasing, but it is becoming harder than ever for students to get shorter placements, over summer months, for example. Too many businesses have stopped offering this type of placement because of a perception it does not offer value to the business – by the time the student gets up to speed, they are leaving. But that overlooks the immense value of a student discovering where they fit in industry, leaving inspired and so working even harder in their studies, and being able to make better choices about their future career – all of which enhances the talent pipeline for businesses in the short to medium term.
Finally, industry can help with funding some of these initiatives – and that is not necessarily expensive. Instead of spending money promoting graduate opportunities, why not invest that funding in meeting and working with your potential recruits, shaping their education, and being part of the solution to the skills gaps? £1-5k can go a very long way and makes a massive difference to the experience and opportunities students have.
The good news is that in the 2019 IET Skills and Demand report, 81% of employers recognise their responsibility to support the transition from education and training to the workplace. Now is the time to step up to that responsibility and take action. Work with education, and together we can shape a better kind of engineering education, build a talent pipeline to meet industry needs, and help to drive and promote engineering in the UK.
You can connect with Professor Gary C Wood on LinkedIn, and find out more about NMITE by visiting their website: https://nmite.ac.uk
In September 2021, Peter Comerford from Comton Group visited Professor Gary C Wood at NMITE in Hereford, and created a short VLOG afterwards to record some of his thoughts.