I have spent the last year leading a review into the employment outcomes of STEM graduates following concerns over poor employment outcomes among graduates from certain STEM disciplines.
A parallel, more in-depth, review was led by Sir Nigel Shadbolt and looked into the reasons behind poor employment rates for graduates from Computer Sciences. My own review has looked across the whole of STEM.
Both reviews have a clear message: engagement and collaboration between universities and colleges, and employers and industry to meet the future needs of both industry and the economy is really important.
But there are further, equally important, messages for the individuals at the centre of these reviews – the students, who become graduates and employees of the future.
It’s clear that students need to start engaging with their careers at the earliest opportunity. This does not mean that they need to decide upon their career with certainty early on, but they must make themselves aware of the wide range of options available to them.
They need to take up the opportunities to explore careers available either within their degree programme or outside of it. They need to improve their employability, and be prepared to upskill and adapt to a career that may span 50 years and a significant number of technological and industrial changes.
What should we expect of higher education and employers?
The review gathered evidence from an online survey, focus groups and in consultation with a range of representative bodies.
The voice of employers was plain enough. They wanted graduates who were, to all intents and purposes, ‘oven ready’, or able to walk into the workplace and hit the ground running.
They wanted, in other words, graduates who understood the principles and foundations within a particular discipline, but also an ability to apply those principles to the ‘real world’ and to apply them in a way that fitted with their employer.
Understandably, the universities, colleges and students who also took part in the research had a different view.
They acknowledged that higher education providers should work in participation with industry and help their students to access opportunities, such as experience through quality work placements. But they also raised the responsibilities of employers.
Evidence from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) points to decreasing investment by employers in formal training – with a slight fall in the net number of total training days funded or arranged by UK employers between 2011 and 2013.
So are the expectations of employers unrealistic and what are the key messages for students in this mixed, often contradictory, body of evidence?
The headline statistics show that STEM graduates who completed a sandwich course have markedly better outcomes than those graduates who did not.
Similarly, those who completed an integrated Master’s degree programme have very impressive employment outcomes.
So the evidence suggests strongly that work experience matters. Students should take every opportunity to develop their experience of the work place.
Universities and colleges have a responsibility here to help their students access placements. Employers of all sizes also need to offer students more quality placements of varying lengths and formats.
But the teaching methods which form part of the curriculum can also help to develop those skills so valued by employers – such as team work and communication.
Students therefore need to understand and embrace the opportunities to work with their peers in group projects, or by presenting and communicating their work to representatives from industry or their fellow students.
Continuing professional development
Second, students need to commit to upskilling and continuing their professional development throughout their career.
Higher education providers need to make sure degree programmes are equipping their students with the tools to do this, but graduates should enter the jobs market with the expectation that their degree may only get them to a certain point.
For many STEM graduates, postgraduate qualifications are required to enter a range of some of the most rewarding roles. And employers here need to accept responsibility for training their employees, so that they can apply their vital knowledge to the benefit of their business and to the wider UK economy.
Finally, they need to give genuine time, effort and interest to opportunities to learn more about STEM careers – this might involve taking a non-credit bearing careers-related module at university.
The review has found that the reasons for the employment outcomes of some STEM graduates is more complicated than one headline statistic about what graduates are doing six months after they leave university might suggest.
Still, it has also found that there is a role and responsibility for students themselves in addressing some of the broader issues that the review has highlighted.