Good foundations for the future

For many students the road to success is still under construction; those studying engineering are in a position to build their own.
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The Independent Online

Did you know that 50 out of 112 vice-chancellors possess engineering or science qualifications and that 16 of the 50 are professional engineers? And did you know that one in four top executives hold a degree or professional qualification in science, engineering or technology? And that 16 FTSE-100 chief executives hold engineering qualifications?

Good graduates in engineering need not join the queue at their local Job Centre. Quite the reverse: employers will queue to recruit them. According to latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 76 per cent of computer science graduates entered full-time employment within six months of graduating in 1999 – and engineers were close behind at 69 per cent. At the same time, only 61 per cent of all new graduates were in full-time employment.

According to the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), last year's starting salaries for graduates in science/engineering and IT/computing jobs stood at £18,000-£19,000 – well above average graduate starting salaries. This year's annual AGR conference disclosed that median starting salaries for next year would rise from £19,000 to £19,800, easily outstripping the inflation rate.

"Considering the uncertainty about the state of our economy, this is extremely good news for graduates and employers," says Carl Gilleard, AGR chief executive. Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, adds: "There has probably never been a better time to graduate from university. The significant increases in both graduate salaries and vacancies show that employers will pay more for the high standards of skills and knowledge that graduates gain. For those thinking about higher education the message is clear: university is worth it."

Malcolm Shirley, director general of the Engineering Council, declares in the Council's information-packed annual report: "While still failing to attract its fair share of the brightest and the best of today's youth, engineering is nevertheless one of the few disciplines to offer near certainty of employment for today's graduates." But he adds: "Slowly but surely, the academic standing of those entering university to study engineering is rising. The supply of those with good A-levels in mathematics and physics is continuing gently to increase."

Figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) demonstrate the decline in the number of applicants and, ipso facto, acceptances over the past five or so years. In 1996, more than 19,200 young men and women applied for engineering and technology courses. The gradual dip showed: 1997: 18,000 applications; 1998: 17,500; 1999: 17,100; 2000: 16,550.

As for admissions, the position for degree courses was as follows (HND course admissions in brackets): 1996: 16,930 (2030); 1997: 17,000 (2060); 1998: 16,300 (2,000); 1999: 15,900 (1820); 2000: 15,500 (1600).

But Clearing jumped to the rescue, as it will no doubt do again this time. With HND courses in brackets and rounded off (by me), the situation was: 1996: 3,060 Clearing acceptances to degree courses (630); 1997: 3,500 (670); 1998: 3,200 (700); 1999: 3,070 (560); 2000: 2,630 (490).

The Engineering Council, which has 250,000 professional engineers and technicians on its register, encourages students to go for degree courses that lead to professional registration. UCAS lists some 4,000 engineering and technology courses, ranging from sports engineering to music technology and of these, 1,300 have the official – and valuable – Engineering Council stamp of accreditation.

A small selection of what is available includes: an initiative, aimed at improving the quality of teaching in construction degrees and the delivery of building and civil engineering courses across the country, is being conducted by the University of Plymouth. Its acronym, SLICE (Student-centred Learning in Construction Education) is being funded for three years by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Four other universities are partnering Plymouth. They are the universities of Brighton, Birmingham, Greenwich and Salford. Already academics at universities in other parts of Europe have shown interest and want to "come aboard" engineering.

At Leeds University, every engineering degree applicant during Clearing will be considered and that a decision will be made within 24 hours. They would need at least a grade C in A-level maths or 18 points for two or three A-levels, including maths but excluding general studies. The Leeds School of Mechanical Engineering has some 500 undergraduates and 100 postgraduate students all with MEng and BEng Honours degrees accredited by the Institute of Mechanical Engineering.

At Exeter University, graduates who followed the Camborne School of Mines' MEng and BEng degrees in Mining Engineering and Mine and Quarry Engineering are now to be found in 70 countries. Some have attracted starting salaries of up to £25,000 rising to £60,000 after 10 years.

Should you seek something different, Southampton Institute of Higher Education runs a BSc Honours degree in media technology which produces technical support engineers for the broadcast, cinema and entertainment industries. Meridian Broadcasting already employs many of the Institute's graduates.

Among those starting an engineering degree in October is Andrew Towers, 18, who took three A-levels in maths (Grade A), Physics (A) and Economics (B) at Bradford Grammar School. He will read civil engineering at Imperial College, London, because he is fascinated by structures and buildings and wants to combine theory and practice. After leaving school he joined the Highways Agency under the Year of Industry scheme and has been preparing a communications strategy for roads and bridge structures.

Alison Waldeck will join the small but growing regiment of women engineers. Her teachers at Bullers Wood School in Bickley, Kent, encouraged her to apply for a degree in civil engineering and next month she joins Manchester University to do just that. She spent the past year with Whitby Bird, a leading engineering company, where her work ranged from house refurbishments to industrial buildings.

The current Higher Education Careers Services Unit report shows vacancies in engineering rose by 51 per cent between May 2000 and May 2001. Graduate Market Trends published last month states categorically: "Despite the contracting manufacturing industry, engineering remains the largest recruiting industrial sector, accounting for over 11 per cent of all vacancies in 'Prospects Today' [a recruiters' journal that advertises for graduates]. Computer consultancy firms account for over 10 per cent of all vacancies."

There are plenty of vacancies in civil, mechanical, aeronautical, electrical, electronic and chemical engineering, but production engineering vacancies have declined. Some electronic and chemical engineering graduates have commanded salaries ranging from £30,000-£40,000 a year.

So if you have the skills and motivation, you can engineer yourself into a fortune.

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