New research has found less than half of recent engineering graduates are working in their chosen field, with their mobile skill-set seeing many graduates snapped up by industries like IT.
The Deakin University research found that 46% of graduates aged 20-24, who had gained an engineering undergraduate degree, were working in a professional engineering role, while that number fell to 32% when including Australia’s engineering bachelor graduates across all age ranges.
The research team analysed data from the 2011 Australian Census, in which more than 200,000 respondents reported a bachelor-level professional engineering qualification.
The study, The relationship between engineering bachelor qualifications and occupational status in Australia, was recently published in the Australasian Journal of Engineering Education.
Although they may not be working as engineers, lead researcher, Associate Professor Stuart Palmer, says the data shows many engineering graduates work in highly-skilled and well-paid industries.
“Our study shows that an engineering degree is a valuable qualification to have in a wide range of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) industries, as well as many non-STEM industries,” Palmer says.
“This is further supported by a separate analysis of the 2011 graduate outcomes published by Graduate Careers Australia, which showed 80% of bachelor-qualified engineering graduates reported being in some form of work, compared to 70% for graduates across all disciplines.
“We already know that an engineering degree is a valuable qualification to have for a whole range of jobs, particularly in high-tech fields and it wasn’t a surprise that our study found more than 14% of all engineering bachelor graduates were working in the IT and other technology-related industries outside of engineering.”
With research showing that the average Gen Y worker will have multiple career changes, Young IPWEA Chair and Junee Shire Council Director Engineering Services William Barton believes the mobility of the skills taught to engineering students should make engineering a highly-attractive area of study.
“If engineers are able to move to other sectors of the economy, and are doing so at high, skilled levels, you can have that change of career without going back to university, and you can do it in a way that maintains your quality of life,” he says.
Barton says this trend should be promoted to prospective students.
“I think it is one of the ways we could actually increase the numbers coming through university,” he explains. “Anything that gets more numbers of intelligent young people into engineering degrees is positive. The law of averages states that if you have an overall increase, then you’ll also experience an increase in the proportion that stay.”
It is little surprise to Barton that a range of industries covet engineering graduates.
“I remember quite a wise and learned lecturer predicting this in one of my first engineering lectures,” Barton reminisces. “He said, ‘The skills you are going to develop over the next five years are going to be sought after not just in the engineering sector, but in many sectors across the economy’. That’s always stuck with me, and I think it is a selling point for the engineering degree. If you wish, it can lead to much more than just a career in engineering.
“If you peel the engineering label off the skill-set, you are left with a very sought-after set of skills that are very mobile,” he continues. “You have things like problem solving, analysis and complex systems, communication skills and finance and economic skills. These give the graduates a head start in looking at other areas that they can apply those skill-sets.”
However, Barton does believe the engineering industry, particularly local government, needs to work harder at attracting graduate engineers.
“The deskilling of the public sector has limited the opportunity for career development and for graduates to get a foothold,” he says. “That’s an issue for society generally, because that then leads to an unsustainable position in so far as an organisation’s skill-set is concerned.
“Once upon a time, councils would train up engineering graduates or undergraduates, they’d support them through study and show them the ropes. The students would pick up a lot of skills and knowledge that you can only garner from the workplace, give them a positive experience, and then a lot of those engineers became public works engineers for life.
“The problems that we’re finding now is that some councils and state government agencies will soon be losing their engineering professionals and there won’t be the mentors there to train younger engineers, so it’s a bit of a slippery slope.”