Practice makes perfect

What makes a perfect engineering graduate asks Sarah Acton

All over the engineering sector, hiring managers are worried about the training and education that young graduates are receiving in UK universities. At least, that’s according to a study by the Institution of Engineering Technology, which found that about 75 per cent (three out of four) businesses do not think of up-and-coming graduates as having the necessary work-related or practical skills to enter the workforce adequately. And although the graduates may have plenty of academic know-how, this doesn’t always translate well or help with the development of practical skills outside of the education system.

This is just another cloud handing over the heads of engineers. Because as you perhaps already know, UK engineering is suffering from a massive shortage in recruitment. The last thing it needs is for those new recruits to have a shortage of skills.

Graduates and the ‘productivity gap’
Industry professionals complaining about unprepared graduates is not a new phenomenon. And it’s getting more common to hear the graduates themselves also complaining about finding it difficult to land work after university. I personally know of a person in the motorsport industry whose job it was to develop the engineers for the racing cars. He often told me that whenever they took on a new recruit, fresh out of university, they wouldn’t have a clue about the protocols or how to implement the practical methods. The result was it took up to six months to train the graduates up to scratch. This is far from ideal, and ends up costing engineering businesses millions of pounds’ worth a year in low productivity.

But if there’s one industry where you can’t ‘fake it till you make it’, it’s the engineering industry. A graduate might be able to put together first-degree presentations, make fine analytics talk and wow professors with their theoretical knowledge — but in the real world they will have to set about working on a project. Something that will inevitably be practical and require hands-on skills that work.

Even a degree certificate from one of the ‘prestigious’ universities like Oxford or Cambridge means little unless the practical skills are relevant. There is some evidence that students from such institutions almost expect employment as a result of the name of their piece of paper. The result is that many of these graduates are losing out to former students of ‘lesser’ universities who have been better equipped than they have.

Practicality on the side
If you’re an engineering student and reading this, don’t despair too much if the university course is heavily theoretical at the expense of the practical. There will almost certainly be lots of networks and connections you can take within the university to bolster your practical skills (and your CV).

One such ‘side project’ is that of the Formula Student competition. This is a worldwide challenge, in which engineering students must build a racing car of their own and then enter them in races (also all over the world). This might sound like fun and games — and it surely is — but employers will also look at it as an essential process of developmental learning.

A Formula Student racer can go into a job interview with the proud boast that they have worked with a team of perhaps 40 other engineers already, to practically build a working vehicle with a project budget of £100,000 or more. Unsurprisingly, this graduate will have a massive advantage over any theoretical peers.

Obtaining practical experience has more advantages over just developing practical skills. For starters, studies have shown that greater hands-on experience also makes students better academically. It’s not surprising really, given how practical students have to learn on the job, they can pick things up intuitively. Former students with plenty of hands-on skills also tend to outperform their peers in regular job interviews, too.

So, what makes a perfect engineering graduate? The answer definitely doesn’t correlate to how prestigious the university is they went to. In fact, if anything, it tends to be more like the opposite. Practical experience trumps everything, background or education.

What we can learn from the Continent
European institutions don’t seem to have the productivity gap that we do in the UK. In fact, many of the most successful teams in Formula Student are fielded by the highest-ranking European universities — including Swiss ETH Zurich and others like the Dutch Delft University of Technology.

These Euro universities have something we don’t — closer ties to their engineering sectors. In the Dutch Delft University case, up to 40 per cent of their PhD research is at least co-sponsored by their industrial partners. And at all university levels they have industry advisory committees who help to steer learning pathways into directions sought by businesses.

It is time we sought to integrate more closely what it is the sector needs and what it is the universities should be teaching — for the benefit of all involved.

To summarise
In short: the perfect engineer is one who has good practical skills. Whether you attended the most expensive, most privileged education centre or not is irrelevant. And until we societally, can figure out a better way to improve the theoretical-practical balance of engineering courses, students can always take the active decision to bolster themselves with a practical ‘side project’.

Sarah Acton is a service co-ordinator and writes for Akramatic Engineering, a sheet metal fabrication company based in Derbyshire. Founded in 1967, Akramatic is a key provider of steel and metal fabrications, weldings and powder coatings, and related services via its in-house facilities.
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