Saturday, 10 September 2011

Graduates in Science, Engineering and Maths are more versatile than others

The versatility of science graduates should be celebrated not criticised. What's the problem if science graduates end up in alternative careers? If anything, we need more of it.

Imran Khan, Friday 9 September 2011 13.33 BST larger

'If you study engineering, physics or chemistry as your first degree, you're almost 90% likely to be in either full-time employment or further study three years later.' Photograph: Martin Shields/Alamy

The Guardian reported that "only about half of all science graduates find work that requires their scientific knowledge" – a fact that "casts doubt on the government's drive to encourage teenagers to study [science]". Yet year on year, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) reports that its members are finding it difficult to get enough staff with science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) skills. This year more than two in five employers had trouble. The Science Council has just released a report showing that a fifth our workforce is employed in a scientific role. So what's going on?

The concerns come from the paper, Is there a shortage of scientists? A re-analysis of supply for the UK. Its author suggests there is no shortage of scientists and engineers in the UK, despite what the CBI says and contrary to the messages of successive governments. However, both the paper and the Guardian's reporting are based on some pretty odd assumptions. While it's true that about half of Stem graduates end up in careers outside science, that's not an argument to say that too many young people are studying science.

For a start, a Stem degree is a fantastic preparation for a huge range of careers. We should celebrate that fact, not mourn it. Statistics show (table 7) that if you study engineering, physics or chemistry as your first degree, you're almost 90% likely to be in either full-time employment or further study three years later. Those figures compare with 73% for the creative arts, and 78% for languages and historical or philosophical studies. The average across all graduates is just above 80%. That's because a Stem degree gives you a huge range of skills that are in demand in wide variety of jobs, not just in science. Isn't that a good thing? We could "fix" it by training science graduates to be useless in the wider economy, but at the moment we have a higher education sector that is successfully producing young people equipped with highly transferable skills.

Moreover, what's the problem if Stem graduates end up in careers outside science and engineering? If anything, we need more of it. We're crying out for more scientists and engineers to teach in schools, get into politics and the civil service, and become involved in running companies. The scientific method should be more embedded in society, not less. In the UK, we have only two MPs with a PhD. China, the most populous country and fastest growing economy in the world, has been led for the past eight years by two men who are professional engineers. I'm not saying it's better – but wouldn't it be nice to have some diversity among all the lawyers and economists?

We don't worry when law graduates don't become lawyers, history graduates don't become historians, or English graduates don't become … er … So why be concerned about the versatile engineer or chemist? True, we do need more people going into research and development if the UK is to successfully rebalance its economy. To achieve that we must increase investment in research and skills so that employers have a reason to come here, and in turn attract our science and engineering graduates into science and engineering jobs. Yes, each company and lab leader will be looking for the very best staff, so with the best will in the world you're not going to get every single engineering graduate into their first-choice profession. But how is that different from any other type of graduate?

It's a shame that the Guardian's report focused on the misleading figures when there was much else of value in the study. We see that there is far too much social and gender stratification in the people who actually go into science and engineering. This is unacceptable, given the benefits that those subjects give to their students. It's 2011, and yet we still only have around one in 10 female graduate engineers. You're more likely to take science and maths A-levels if you attend an independent school, with pupils at state-maintained schools over-represented in arts and humanities subjects instead.

There is emphatically still a need for more scientists and engineers – and, far from retrenching support for science and engineering, we should be concentrating on making these subjects more accessible to everyone.

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