There is a perception amongst employers that graduates do not possess the technical and employability skills that industry requires. At SEPnet we recently explored this perceived gap in physics graduates’ skills and considered how 2-3 month placements can help to address this and meet regional industry skills’ needs – particularly relevant at such a challenging time for graduates and businesses.

According to a recent report by Prospects, core technical skills are important to employers and ‘specialist skills or knowledge’ is the dominant skills deficit for many. However, findings by the Edge Foundation still hold true that employers also require graduates to ‘demonstrate a range of broader skills and attributes that include team-working, communication, leadership, critical thinking, problem solving and managerial abilities’.

Feedback from SEPnet’s Employer Advisory Group routinely signals a desire to see physics graduates develop and improve programming, practical/technical skills, project management, report writing and business and commercial skills. In a study by the HEA (now Advance HE), new physics graduates reported non-discipline-specific attributes such as report writing, time management and team working as more important once they began work than subject- specific knowledge. Results from this year’s Graduate Outcomes survey reveals only 40% of physics graduates agree that they are utilising what they learnt during their studies in their current activity. Should we be doing more to prepare our physics graduates, and all graduates, to be work-ready?

The Wakeham review in 2016 recognised the requirement for practical skills, and the importance of work experience was a strong theme leading to a recommendation that all students would benefit from work experience during their degree. Indeed, it would be difficult to see where students could develop an understanding of commercial awareness, for example, other than directly in industry.

Summer placements offer an effective and low risk way for many students to gain industry-relevant skills in a short space of time. All SEPnet partner universities offer 8-week, paid summer placements to physics (and now maths) students. Over 300 students apply for 70-80 placements per year. Projects are provided by employers across different sectors, 70% of whom are SMEs based across the SEPnet region. Students gain industry-based experience in areas such as programming, data analysis and experimental or research work. Encouragingly, both SEPnet students returning from placements and their employer supervisors report positive developments in their physics-related as well as transferable skills. Placements raise awareness amongst students of the range of roles and skills in demand and where they can apply their skills and knowledge.

SEPnet also supports postgraduate researchers (PGRs) to develop industry-relevant skills by offering 2-3 month PhD placements. Such placements raise PGRs’ awareness of their career options outside academia and how their skills can be applied in industry. Some lead to job offers. SEPnet’s employer network recognises the additional skills that physics PhD graduates bring including relevant expertise, maths skills, problem solving, the ability to apply theories to real-world problems, flexibility and an enquiring mind. Of 106 SEPnet PGRs graduating in 2018-19, 69% went straight into non-academic jobs across a diverse range of sectors. This suggests they are well equipped to contribute to industry skills needs and echoes a recent HEPI report indicating 70% of PhD graduates are applying their skills outside academia 3.5 years after graduating.

Demand for STEM-related occupations is projected to grow at double the rate of other sectors and there is already a deficit in the number of skilled graduates. The challenge is made even more acute by the economic turmoil triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic with most economic indicators in steep decline. The UK Industrial Strategy Council anticipates physics-related sectors experiencing the sixth highest skills shortage by 2030 alongside engineering, mechanics and technology. Regional SMEs, in particular, struggle to attract suitably skilled graduates in these areas and this is exacerbated by the fact that, while most businesses are SMEs, the majority of graduates still seek work with larger businesses.

However, findings from a recent joint report between SEPnet and the White Rose Industrial Physics Academy (WRIPA) offers some hope as it reveals that proximity to home or university is an important factor for 44% of physics students considering a placement. This echoes DLHE data findings which indicate that 45% of graduates studied and sought work in their home region. Local placements could help to address regional skills needs by enabling more students to build links and gain experience with regional employers including SMEs.

Universities UK recently called upon the government to support paid internships for students graduating this year to improve their employment prospects and help businesses get back on their feet following the Covid-19 lockdown. We know employers can benefit as much as students from internships and such a scheme would go a long way to equipping new graduates with work-ready skills as well as meeting industry’s needs in the short term.

The Wakeham report acknowledged that changes over a graduate’s career will require individuals to re-invent and upskill themselves. The goalposts will continue to move and universities need to develop flexible graduates open to new knowledge and technology and able to adapt to rapidly changing industries. Now more than ever, universities and business need to work together to create as many work experience opportunities as possible for undergraduates, graduates and PhD students to gain the employability skills needed to address industry needs.