For final-year students positioning themselves to enter the jobs market next year, there isn't much obvious cause for optimism. Having seen this summer's cohort come out with degrees only to enter a market with a lot fewer vacancies than the previous year, and with unemployment relentlessly rising, students now approaching their finals are bound to feel uncertainty at the very least. Some might even be wondering if their degree was really worth the time and effort.
But excessive gloom seems to be unfounded, because the message from careers advisers on campuses across the country is that graduates are being taken on and vacancies do exist, albeit in an increasingly competitive environment. That certainly applies to students on science, technology, engineering and maths degree courses, whose qualifications and skills appear to give them a better chance of getting on the first rung of a career ladder than those from other subject areas.
There are several strands of evidence to support this. First, employers in the engineering and technology sector are continuing to pay for exhibition space at university careers fairs aimed at next summer's graduates. What's more, they are talking positively behind the scenes, according to Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), which represents 800 of the UK's main graduate employers.
"I was at a meeting of 12 or 13 firms looking to recruit engineers, and I would definitely say that the mood was fairly upbeat. There was no air of depression in the room," he explains. "There is still a demand for good graduate engineers, and the employers are working hard to get their message across about the attractiveness of working in the sector."
However, in the same breath, he stresses that engineering and science skills are not enough on their own to land a job with these employers. "They set high standards, and are looking for engineers with good social and communications skills, who can work in teams and work with customers and who can take the initiative."
Among those employers maintaining a recruitment operation is the Swedish telecommunications firm Ericsson, which is looking to take on between 40 and 50 graduates from UK universities next autumn, sharply up from this year's figure of 15.
Ericsson targets graduates with degrees in physics, electrical and electronic engineering, computer science and telecommunications, and puts them in advanced technology roles, developing new systems or managing existing mobile communications networks used by operators such as 02, T-Mobile and 3 UK.
Ericsson's director of human resources, Phil Hooper, says that the firm has deliberately kept its graduate recruitment going, despite the recession. "We didn't want to repeat the mistake we made in the last downturn when we stopped recruiting altogether and found ourselves a few years later with an empty well," he explains.
Ericsson is among 70 or so recruiters who'll be at the University of Manchester's Engineering, Science and Technology Fair later this month at the city centre venue, Manchester Central.
"There are jobs around," says Andrew Whitmore, assistant director of the university's careers service, offering the example of the motor industry, which has attracted several gloomy news reports in the press recently. "It's wrong to assume that the motor industry is not recruiting," he warns. "I know, for example, that Jaguar Land Rover are taking on 85 or 90 graduates this year."
But he also advises students to get their applications in quickly. "The feedback we got from recruiters last year is that vacancies fill up very quickly. So lots of companies, even if they have a closing date for applications of the end of December, find that they fill up by the middle of November. It is important for students to realise that firms are selecting people from now."
Further encouragement for students on science, technology, engineering and maths-related courses is to be found in the buoyancy of certain sub-divisions of the wider engineering landscape. Examples here include the energy, water and utilities sectors. In a recent survey of 200 employers, by the AGR, these were the only sectors showing a rise in graduate vacancies compared to last year.
This picture is borne out at Siemens, which employs more than 5,000 people on its energy-related sites in the UK, and where, among other things, wind turbines for offshore wind farms are manufactured, as well as turbines and other engineering equipment connected to oil and gas fields in the North Sea.
"Because the energy sector is going through a renaissance, driven by the carbon dioxide reduction requirements of the Kyoto treaty, the majority of our graduate recruitment over the past few years has been into our energy division," says Martin Hottass, from Siemens' human resources department. "In the past three years, we've taken on 100 mechanical and electrical engineers just in our energy operation."
But surprisingly, perhaps, in the current economic climate, he says Siemens does not find it easy identifying and appointing graduates of the calibre it requires. "It's difficult. When the average amount of graduates with the right of residence in the UK has been decreasing year on year, it makes it difficult for us to get the quality we need."
This is evidence of a persistent, chronic fault in the British education system that, although now being addressed, has clearly not yet been conquered. This is the low uptake among British teenagers, in the past couple of decades, of A-level and degree courses with a strong science and technology content.
To combat this, the Government-funded Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths Network (Stemnet) has been trying to raise the profile and attractiveness of careers in these fields among school pupils. There are now 18,000 ambassadors from industry – all working in science and technology roles – who visit schools to talk about their jobs. There's also an exhibition of 18 photographic portraits of young ambassadors, in particularly eye-catching roles, currently touring the country, and located for maximum impact in public spaces such as shopping centres.
There is evidence that this is already having the desired effect, with an increased uptake in both science and maths at A-level, which became clear when the exam results came out during the summer.
However, no one in higher education is complacent, particularly since employers in areas such as law and accountancy also have an appetite for science and engineering graduates, because of their generic, high-level numeracy skills. Among those with this realistic attitude is Emily Huns, head of the careers service at Queen Mary, University of London. "Engineering and technology careers definitely need to be sexed up," she argues. "We need to do more to show students – even those who've chosen relevant degree courses – the range of careers in those areas that can work for them."
To this end, Queen Mary already has a programme where young engineers in project management roles visit the university to run real-life workshop exercises with current students.
So, in the medium to long term, the prospects for students attracted to engineering or technology careers appear bright. That's certainly the view at Siemens. "If you are coming to the end of an engineering degree course you are looking at exciting times ahead," says Hottass.
'I have had to adapt my degree knowledge to dealing with soil'
'My job is to make sure our products work properly'
Catherine Taylor, 24, is an engineering geologist working in the Croydon office of the engineering consultancy Mott MacDonald, which she joined in 2007 after completing a geology degree at the University of Leicester.
"What I do day to day varies according to the project I'm working on. For the one I've just finished, I was geologist for the scheme to build an underground station for a new Metro system in Dublin.
At the particular site I was working on, I noticed that there was a rock that came very high into the area they wanted to build the station in.
So I had to go to Dublin and supervise some detailed ground investigation, with bore holes, to confirm the existence and location of this rock, which we did. So now the designers have to come up with a design to go around the rock. That was a very multi-disciplinary project, so I was working alongside mechanical, civil, structural and electrical engineers. It was brilliant.
I have had to adapt my degree knowledge a little, because I studied igneous and volcanic rocks, and I've now had to transfer those skills to dealing with soil.
The project I'm just starting involves a landfill site where they want to build a road and a hotel. I have to look at the strength properties of the landfill materials and decide if they can build on top, or if they need to excavate first.
I spend a fair amount of time in the office, but also work on site, which I enjoy. But I don't want to go for months on end, because I don't think my boyfriend would be very happy.
My immediate goal is to become a chartered geologist, and then maybe I'll do some project management, or learn more engineering and become a chartered engineer."
Shriansh Shrivastava, 24, is a device application engineer working for Ericsson at its Reading offices. He joined the company in 2007, after finishing a four-year Masters degree in electronics and communications at Sussex University.
"I lead a team that tests mobile phone applications, and the dongles that connect laptops to the internet.
We test the dongles for the mobile operator 3 UK, and our job is to make sure that when they are launched on to the market they don't break and they work properly.
With each particular model, we need to tell the customer that it's good enough and that it won't break the laptop when it's plugged in. My job also involves testing handsets for music services that O2 have – so I get free music tracks whenever I want them.
I work mainly in the office at Reading, and, in addition to the testing, I have to talk to the customers.
This involves talking to highly technical people and also to the non-technical marketing blokes, and I actually like that side of the job more – the soft skills, management skills and selling skills – even though my degree was 100 per cent technical.
Six months after I joined Ericsson, I was sent to Japan to try to get a major customer to sign up with us, and then, a little later, I was sent to Indonesia for three months to teach Ericsson Indonesia how to do the testing that we do.
As for the future, I've been told by my managers that I don't have to remain in my current job or the UK.
Three years down the line, I want to try something international. Maybe I'll go into an exclusively soft-skill role rather than technical."