Advice to the young (2) – prepare for change

My brief and ever so slightly ironic comment yesterday on career prospects for science and engineering graduates was based on a contribution to the PSI-COM email list for science communication specialists. That short paragraph launched a debate featuring counterclaims that science and engineering graduates have never had it so good, along with a comment from from the coalface, from an independent recruitment consultant who agrees with me that part of the problem for science graduates is unrealistic employer expectations.

Specialist engineering jobs remain unfilled often because of unrealistic expectations on the part of employers, who, going by statements issued on their behalf by the CBI and other lobby groups, expect the state to subsidise what should be on-the-job training. Said employers may complain about the content of degree courses, but they would complain a lot more if those courses were so specialised that they produced graduates incapable of thinking around real-world problems.

Whiney statements issued by science and engineering employers should be subject to a little more critical scrutiny from both journalists and science advocacy groups. From having spoken about the subject with recent graduates, and school leavers considering their life options, my impression is that unrealistic employer expectations and derogatory statements about the education system put many young people off pursuing careers in science and engineering. Far better, they think, to take the path of least resistance, and go for the fast track into management, where degree type is not so important.

Science and technology qualifications may provide skills for all sorts of careers, but so too do arts and humanities degrees. Science education and outreach initiatives which fail to acknowledge this reality ring hollow in the ears of young people who may be more real-world savvy than the older generations give them credit for.

When it comes to the material presented yesterday at the conference of the British Educational Research Association, the full report had not yet been released when the media ran the story with its predictably negative spin. But the message is out there now, and that is a problem for science communicators and lobbyists. This presents the science community with a clear PR challenge, and one that I say should be met with hard-headed honesty.

At the BERA conference, it was stated that there is a nearly one in four chance that a science graduate will end up in a job which makes no direct use of their academic qualification…

“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.”

Now that statement is either true or it isn’t. If it is true, the finding is cause for serious concern, even if more than half of all science and engineering graduates go into graduate-level jobs of one kind or another.

If we are to argue against the cynical, humanities-first interpretation characteristic of the Grauniad-reading chatterati, we should avoid the everything-in-the-garden-is-rosy press release approach beloved of some pro-science lobby groups. It may come down to saying to young people…

Look, science is really really interesting, yea, and you might like to consider studying it for that reason alone. But when it comes to making a living, be realistic. Considering the job market as a whole, there are relatively few opportunities to make use of the level of science and engineering skills you will acquire in university. But then if you decide instead to read English literature (also a brilliant subject to study!), the chances are that your future jobs will not involve critical analyses of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Having a science degree in a non-science job should not be an impediment, as long as you also possess sufficient communication and people skills to be fully effective in that job.

And another thing, boys and girls, tomorrow’s job market is likely to be far more dynamic than the one described to you by your parents and teachers. In all probability, you will have to retrain and reinvent yourselves during your working lives. Possibly several times. So try to make the most of the opportunities that come your way, create opportunities for yourselves wherever possible, and be prepared to radically and rapidly change track.

In addition to the BERA-presented research, there was published at the same time a substantial report from the Science Council which states that “20% of the UK workforce depends on science skills”. I very much welcome this contribution from the Science Council, but from a cursory reading of the report, it isn’t clear to me whether “science-related occupation” refers to jobs that specifically require scientific knowledge, or if we are talking instead about all jobs within corporations both private and public which have something or other to do with science or engineering. If the latter, then one must break down the figures further, differentiating between degree-level technical jobs, and administrative roles which may be filled with non-scientists.

In my time, I have come across a number of firms that purport to be part of the science and engineering sector, but which discriminate in favour of non-scientists when looking to hire business analysts or sales consultants who know how to open up an Excel spreadsheet.

In the Science Council report, I note the reference to growth areas in the economy (section 6.1). At present, there is little more than wishful thinking that a low carbon economy will translate into large numbers of science and engineering jobs. Where jobs are created in related industries, they are likely to include relatively small numbers of graduate engineers, and a much larger pool of manufacturing and technician-grade positions which could be filled with workers who have completed apprenticeships and other vocational training courses.

With university education becoming a risky proposition for young people from working class and other low-income families, non-degree vocational training is going to become more and more important. And industry will have to foot at least part of the bill.

A similar argument can be made for the “Digital economy”. Our high streets can only cope with so many mobile phone emporia, and if the masses cotton on to the fact that they are currently being fleeced, the resulting market crash will show most convincingly that ‘wealth’ and ‘information’ are not conserved quantities.