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Are Universities Properly Equipping EEs with the Skills Employers Seek?

April 23, 2019 by Lianne Frith

Engineering is a tempting option for students with the promise of more job opportunities and higher starting salaries than that of other industries.

On top of engineering’s vital importance to Europe and worldwide, every job in the industry produces countless other jobs. The real picture isn’t quite as rosy, though: in spite of many students opting for engineering, employers are still reporting recruitment difficulties and the fact that candidates aren’t equipped with the skills they need for the job.

So, who is at fault? Graduates, universities or employers?


What is the Skills Gap?

The engineering sector is seeing a significant lack of talented, qualified, and experienced engineers joining it. The growing trend towards an hourglass economy, as a result of technological advances, has resulted in an explosion in demand for highly skilled labour.

The fact is that there are nowhere near enough people to fill the vacant roles and meet the industry’s requirements. Engineering UK reported last year that there is an annual shortfall of 59,000 engineering graduates and technicians to fill core engineering roles in the UK alone.

There are several reasons the shortage has come about. To begin with, there is a lot of confusion around what it means to be an engineer and work in the industry. The concept of engineering is misunderstood by young people, teachers, and parents alike and the right focus isn’t in place to encourage talented individuals to choose the career.

In spite of engineering being a major growth area, our education systems are still structured around science and maths. Young people are rarely given the opportunity to meaningfully engage with the subject of engineering at school and college.

As part of last year’s ‘Year of Engineering’ government scheme in the UK, STEM resources were made more widely available to secondary schools. Enriching science and maths lessons with engineering-based resources is a great example of how students can become engaged in the subject at a younger age, planting the seed for potential career choices later on.

Equally, as a result of the scheme, parents have been encouraged to get involved with fun engineering activities to get keep their budding engineers busy over the school holidays.

In addition to this, it has been widely reported that the industry is male-dominated. Engineering UK reported that in 2016, while women made up almost 50 per cent of the overall UK workforce, they only comprised 12% of core engineering roles

While females are performing as well as males in STEM subjects, they aren’t being encouraged to continue their studies into higher education.

A large factor influencing this is the lack of suitable career advice for young women, giving them poorly formed views of what engineering really entails. Many still believe engineers work alone and aren’t at all creative, and this is a significant barrier for women.

In addition to this, the perception of engineering being a career for boys is still firmly ingrained in the minds of many young people. More than one in ten girls think that STEM subjects are more suited to boys.

It is these early stereotypes that are causing a large part of the issue. Women that do make it through are then leaking out at every stage of the pipeline, lost to science careers rather than engineering.


Image courtesy of Bigstock.


What Students Should Expect From an EE Degree

In short, electrical engineering degrees equip students with both knowledge around how the industry works and the engineering and technological know-how to design, assess, and improve electrical and electronic systems.

Many electrical engineering degrees also include elements of electronics engineering, developing analytical and technical design skills.

At an undergraduate level, degrees aim to give students a grounding in the underlying principles of the industry. Although courses vary within different institutions and countries, they generally have the following structure:

  • Year One—overlap across all disciplines including mathematics, communications engineering, engineering principles systems, and communications and laboratory skills. Specific electrical engineering content includes the likes of circuits and fields, computer engineering, real-time systems, and engineering programming.
  • Year Two—more in-depth study of areas such as data analysis, probabilistic and numerical techniques, signal processing and control engineering, and electrical engineering design.
  • Year Three—delving further into engineering with modules covering electromagnetism, power engineering, web-based computing, field waves and antennas, and digital video-communication systems.

When embarking upon an electrical engineering degree, students should have an inherent interest in how electrical devices work. An inquisitive mind alongside a keen interest in mathematics and science is also a prerequisite.

Leading universities often ask for top grades, ensuring that students are of the highest calibre. For example, University College London (UCL) expects UK students to obtain the A-level grades AAA/A*AB. As well as grades, highly competitive programmes will look for students who have excelled in mathematics and physics and who have involved themselves in extracurricular engineering courses and/or activities.

While an electronic engineering degree delivers students who have the technical knowledge to embark upon their careers, does this mean they are ready to start working in the field?

What isn’t laid out in most university prospectuses is the social side—the communications skills that are crucial in most jobs.


The Prospects for Electrical Engineering Graduates

Expectation versus reality is a real problem for electrical engineering graduates. While they head down the career path in search of a guaranteed position at a top firm, they are often left disappointed. Electrical engineering students typically expect:

  • High Employment Prospects—due to the skills shortage alongside a huge demand for skilled labour in the engineering industry, students assume that they will easily be able to find a job and start their careers upon graduation.
  • High Starting Salaries—companies are raising starting salaries to attract the best candidates. Starting salaries are often significantly higher than in other industries, particularly at bigger firms.
  • Global Opportunities—the skills gap is a worldwide epidemic, offering a plethora of opportunities to graduates who wish to move overseas.
  • Endless Demand—with the rapid expansion of the technology sector, electrical engineering is one of the most in-demand professions and there is no sign of it slowing down.

However, in spite of the undeniable demand for graduates, employers are still struggling to fill vacancies and are claiming that candidates don’t have the right skills for the jobs.


The Skills EE Graduates Are Lacking

Unfortunately, graduate outcomes aren’t quite living up to what has been promised to them, and the work readiness of graduates remains to be a concern among employers.

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) reported that up to 62 per cent of engineering employers feel that graduates can’t offer the right skills for their jobs. This opens up the debate as to whether it is not the number of graduates that are adding to the skills shortage but, in fact, their employability.

It would be easy to assume, given the shortage of technical expertise, that graduates’ technical abilities would be the biggest concern among employers. However, this isn’t the case. The principal skills that graduates are criticised for lacking are soft skills and work-readiness.


Image courtesy of Bigstock.


Employers feel that graduates need more opportunities within the curriculum to develop business skills and gain real-world experience. They are looking for graduates who, as well as possessing the technical prowess they need, can demonstrate leadership ability, have the capacity to work in teams and possess excellent communication skills.

As well as this, graduates need to be able to exemplify a strong work ethic and to prove their problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.

For graduates to really be in with a chance of one of the top positions, as well as having an impressive array of technical, professional and soft skills they need to have secured relevant work experience. A recent Chegg survey found that an astonishing 81 per cent of hiring managers believe that students should have finished a formal internship before graduating.


Are Graduates to Blame?

While there is a lot of noise around the engineering skills gap, what graduates are facing is an experience gap. Recruiters often prefer to recruit people who have a few years’ worth of experience rather than selecting raw recruits directly from universities.

Although employers are known to think that graduates should have undertaken a formal internship, they don’t state where they are supposed to find these and whether their own organisation offers such a scheme. Employers themselves need to take some of the blame for putting unrealistic expectations in the minds of new graduates.

Any person who has gone to university and handed over huge sums of money with the promise of employability and high starting salaries is, undoubtedly, going to do everything they can to get the job.

Also, with at least three years spent studying, living, and working with others, surely graduates do, in fact, have a lot of the soft skills that employers seek. They perhaps just don’t know how to convey these skills or know that they are the priority for employers.

If graduates aren’t leaving university ready for work, universities need to be equipping them better; surely they are also to blame


Image courtesy of Pexels.


What Can We Do About It?

To address the severe engineering skills shortage, it is vital that universities and employers work together to ensure they effectively harness the talent of young graduates.

Employers need to change their expectations about the soft and hard skills that graduates must have and become more willing to give these skills the chance to develop. Equally, if employers insist upon having graduates with formal work experience, as well as professional skills that can only be learned on the job, then they must start offering these opportunities to students.

Even if we got past all of these issues and all graduates entered the industry, we would still be facing a skills shortage. It is vital that the education system doesn’t let graduates leak out of the system.

Universities ultimately need to amend their courses to help highlight and develop the professional skills that employers seek, while employers need to be more inclusive and open-minded about the graduates that they are willing to hire.

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