The graduate employment gap: expectations versus reality,’ a report from the CIPD, shows that STEM graduates (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are statistically more likely to be unemployed six months after graduation than graduates from any other disciplines.

Recent government investment into STEM education needs to be supplemented with measures designed to help STEM graduates gain the skills they need to transition from education to graduate level jobs.

Current figures show a 6% unemployment rate for engineering and technology students six months after graduation, compared to a national average of 4.9%. Similarly, mathematical science and physical science graduates are also experiencing an above-average unemployment rate at 6.5%. In terms of computer science graduates, this rises again to 8.6%, which is almost double the overall national unemployment rate.

The economy’s future, both in the UK and globally, will become increasingly reliant on the next generation of skilled STEM graduates. The Industrial Strategy stresses the need for homegrown talent in today’s turbulent political climate and with thousands STEM graduates completing university every year, it’s important to utilise this pipeline of talent to its full potential. So how do we convert this pool of talented STEM graduates into the work-ready pioneers needed for tomorrow?

Closing the skills gap

There are many reports and news stories trying to make sense of the correlation between graduate numbers, graduate roles and those left without employment. There’s been recognisable investment into relevant educational programmes as well as initiatives such as Year of Engineering aiming to inspire young people into the field of engineering, but there still remains a need for honing graduates’ ‘soft skills’ and employability attributes if we are going to lose the phrase ‘skills gap’ once and for all.

To further plug the importance of employability skills, The Institute of Engineering & Technology (IET) revealed in their Skills and Demand in Industry survey that despite having the adequate academic qualifications needed, 62% of engineering employers say graduates aren’t workplace ready. When over half of engineering firms are looking for new engineering and technology recruits, this is an issue that needs immediate attention and action.

Despite the concerning figures, the issue isn’t a new one and although there are many employers, universities and colleges working hard to help bridge the gap between higher education and the workplace, there is clearly much more to be done. Offering quality work experience placements for students ensures that, alongside their education, students obtain the knowledge and skills needed to be workplace ready. Work experience is a valuable way to grow a pool of suitable future employees that can re-enter the workplace and hit the ground running post-graduation.

Work experience that works for all

“Offering work experience to STEM graduates allows employers to meet and connect with students, essentially road testing future talent before having to commit to full time employment.”

Offering work experience to STEM graduates allows employers to meet and connect with students, essentially road testing future talent before having to commit to full time employment. Employers can develop students and equip them with the bespoke, relevant skills and attributes needed for their practice. In order to do this, work experience must expand from the age-old notion of taking on a student, or someone’s relative, to do admin tasks for a couple of weeks; this probably doesn’t benefit either party involved.

Offering quality work experience placements by making time to think about the tasks you want undertaken and establish a plan of work, the individual can exercise independent working – crucial for the transition from education to workplace. Employers should also seek to reserve contact time for meaningful conversations, briefings and reflections on their time with your organisation. In essence, treat the student as a proper member of staff.

As such, employers should make sure all staff are aware there is a work experience student joining and take the opportunity to ask if there are projects/tasks that they can take ownership of or contribute to. Taking the time to know the areas the student is interested in can help to fully maximise their creative thinking, which may be a welcome injection into the company.

Connect to STEM talent from all backgrounds

The National Centre for Universities and Business has shown that many organisations use word-of-mouth as a key channel to access work experience applicants. This undoubtedly risks further exacerbating the ‘samey’ cultural climates evident in some organisations. Widening your pool and attracting students into your organisation from a range of backgrounds, beyond word-of-mouth networks, can bring a range of ideas to the table.

This benefits the business by broadening opportunities for students and helps to ensure young people are recruited on merit, not based on who they know. Another way of harnessing the vast spectrum of suitable students waiting to be taken on as work experience placements is by using platforms such as Placer. By directly connecting businesses, students and universities, the platform uses technology to reduce unconscious bias and to match students with employers based on their interests and skills alone.

Helping STEM grads become workplace ready

Offering quality work experience is the most effective way for employers to source and connect with bright STEM undergraduate talent. Offering an inspiring taster-day, week, month or even year-long placement can create a lasting relationship between you and talented engineering students, potentially translating into a permanent job after graduation.

As a result, engineering students will be exposed to more workplace opportunities and better develop the workplace-ready skills engineering firms, and our economy, are crying out for.


David Docherty is CEO of the National Centre for Universities and Businesses (NCUB) and Chairman of Placer.