Some 20 per cent end up in graduate jobs not related to their degree, while a further 24 per cent find work in sections of the economy not requiring a higher education qualification, such as sales.
The figures, presented to the British Educational Research Association’s annual conference, are said by the academic who compiled them to undermine claims that the country’s businesses are facing a shortage of well-qualified people with science and technology degrees.
Emma Smith, of the University of Birmingham, who is presenting the paper, said: “It is astonishing, in the light of claims of science graduate shortages, that so few new graduates go into related employment.”
Claims of a shortage of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates have been widespread in recent years. Professor Smith’s research cites a 2008 survey from the employers’ group the CBI saying one third of businesses reported shortages, with 42 per cent saying they lacked appropriate skills. Reported shortages were particularly high among female graduates.
In 2009, the Council for Industry and Higher Education, a partnership between leading companies and vice-chancellors advocating to improve the UK’s knowledge-based economy, said: “We cannot stress too forcibly our concern at the critical shortage of graduates and postgraduates with STEM capabilities.”
However, Professor Smith analysed figures from the Higher Education Statistical Agency based on a survey of what graduates were doing six months after finishing university.
For engineering science, the latest figures, from 2009, showed that 46 per cent of graduates were working in fields directly related to their degree, such as engineering itself or engineering-related IT. Professor Smith’s paper focused on engineering, but separate data for 2008 from the same annual survey suggest the rate of physics and chemistry graduates taking up work in related fields within six months of graduating is around 55 per cent.
Professor Smith said the high numbers of engineering graduates taking jobs not requiring graduate-level qualifications – 12 per cent were working in sales and five per cent in 'elementary administration and service' – suggested there was not a ready supply of engineering jobs for all of them.
She said: “Just under a quarter of newly-qualified engineers report every year that they are working in what are considered to be non-graduate jobs, including unskilled and routine employment, such as being cashiers and waiters. Around 10 per cent are in general management and a further 10 per cent are classified as ‘other’.
“The figures suggest it is not easy or automatic for qualified engineers to get related employment in the UK, despite the purported shortages.
“Perhaps, because of recent initiatives, there seem to be too many people studying science for the labour market to cope with, or perhaps graduates are no longer of sufficient quality.
“It is more likely, however, that all of these scientists are without relevant employment every year because the shortage thesis is wrong and there are no jobs waiting for all of them, or because they are ‘dropping out’ having learned that they do not enjoy their subject areas.”
Professor Smith highlights huge efforts in recent decades to increase the supply of science graduates, including previous research from 2004 which revealed there had been more than 470 separate projects to attract more young people into STEM subjects.
But she argues that what is needed now is more research into the real demand of UK STEM businesses for new recruits.
Professor Smith’s research has also shown that attempts to get more young people from poorer homes to study science degrees have had only limited success, with the physical sciences in particular remaining largely the preserve of white students whose parents are in the professions or management. It also finds that the proportion of women accepted for physics and engineering degrees has barely changed in the last 25 years.
Professor Smith added that some employers could be right in complaining that some science graduates were not of sufficient quality. Yet engineering degrees tended to require fairly high A-level grades, and university courses were also often accredited by professional organisations, so should be ensuring standards.
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Susie Hughes © Shout99 2011