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Oversupply, Underskilling and Consequent Underemployment of Chemical Engineering Graduates

By: , Posted on: April 25, 2018

Universities, and the various professional engineering institutions worldwide insist that there is a shortage of graduate engineers, yet wages are falling for engineers, employment of engineering graduates as engineers is less than 50% worldwide, and experienced engineers are unemployed, so how can there be any shortage of engineers?

I have been investigated the issue for a while now. Back when I worked full-time as an academic, I surveyed 600 graduates of the university I worked at, then I looked at the IChemE’s stats, as well as those collected in the UK by HECSU, and many reports produced since. The facts are these:

  1. Only about 50% of chem eng grads get jobs as engineers (the HECSU figures are misleading on this, unless you look very closely at their job classifications)
  2. There is no evidence of any current or historical unsatisfied demand for new chem eng grads. On the contrary.
  3. The highest paid chem eng graduates are those who go into engineering. No-one is outcompeting chem eng employers for the best grads on price.
  4. Only a tiny percentage of chem eng grads go into finance, and they tend to have a private school background. They are not the best, just the poshest.
  5. Only a tiny percentage of chem eng grads go into research, and they tend to be those who couldn’t get a job as an engineer. They are not the best, just the worst at interviews.

A report from Canada, where 70% of engineering grads can’t get jobs as engineers, shows the direction in which we are heading if we continue to follow the advice of these self-interested pundits. The illustrations above taken from the report says it all.

There is no shortage of graduate chemical engineers in the UK, Canada, Australia, India, or any other country I have looked at, and there is no real reason to expect one in the future. Engineers can however never be too cheap as far as engineering employers are concerned. Neither can there be too many disappointed applicants and graduates as far as academe is concerned, as they measure the status of their courses by how many applicants they turn away, rather than how many of their grads get jobs as engineers. This is why academia, engineering employers and the professional institutions they control keep on producing reports forecasting a shortage even when experienced engineers who were laid off during the oil and gas slump cannot get work at any price.

Much as employers would like to replace expensive experienced engineers with cheap graduates, todays graduates have few useful skills, (though they do not know that). As I wrote to ill-informed and often cocky new chem eng grads a while back:

  1. You are not an engineer yet. People like you are not in short supply, there are twice as many grads as there are jobs.
  1. Neither are people like you with high marks in a degree programme in short supply. 75% of grads have “good degrees” nowadays. Universities graduate far more students with a upper second or first class degree than they did in the past. In any case, some employers discriminate against those with first class degrees, which can make candidates look more suited to academia than engineering. You are not an engineer yet. Maybe you’ll never be one-there’s a lot more to it than there was in those exams you took.
  1. That stuff you learned in university was not engineering, and the people who taught you it were not engineers. Giving you a job means that real engineers are going to have to take time out from their engineering work to teach you engineering. You are a liability for a year or two, and some of you will prove to not have what it takes. You are not an engineer yet, you need to know how, not just know about.
  1. Employers are not going to give you a break so that you can show them that you can solve real world problems, because you can’t. That’s what engineers do, and you aren’t an engineer yet. Would someone allow a green med school grad to carry out open heart surgery? Get over yourself. My expert witness experience covers a few cases where green engineering grads were given a chance to solve real world problems. It didn’t go well.
  1. You don’t even know what an engineer is yet, so don’t be picky. If anyone offers you a job with a title ending in the word engineer, be grateful. Take it. Work hard. Learn what engineering is about. Then you perhaps get to wear the tee-shirt. Until then remember that you are not an engineer yet, and you are not automatically entitled to become one.
  1. Some chemical engineers may earn a lot of money, but you aren’t a chemical engineer yet. The market value of your skillset is less than zero, as explained in the last section. The high wages paid to a small subset of grads in the past (mainly by big oil and gas operating companies) were golden handcuffs, intended to keep those grads there until they were useful. Try to remember this when you are considering whether employers are offering you a good enough benefits package.
  1. Employers are not refusing to take you on to be awkward, as it seems some academics (and others who are not yet engineers) think. Academia may be able to create more or less as many new degree places as they like, but engineering firms can only fund new jobs by getting new work. Taking on a graduate is an expensive speculative investment in an uncertain future, and times are tough. Some graduate hires will become engineers, but some will not. Of those that become engineers, many will leave the company which invested in them for better pay elsewhere.

This attitude adjustment was surprisingly well received, considering its forthrightness. I see no point in allowing wannabe engineers to think that employers will be fighting over them when they graduate when the truth is that less than half of them worldwide will ever be an engineer.

Read more articles from Sean Moran, The Voice of Chemical Engineering

Professor Sean Moran is a Chartered Engineer with over twenty years’ experience in process design, commissioning and
troubleshooting and is regarded as the ‘voice of chemical engineering’. He started his career with international process engineering contractors and worked worldwide on water treatment projects before setting up his own consultancy in 1996, specializing in process and hydraulic design, commissioning and troubleshooting of industrial effluent and water treatment plants.

Whilst Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham, he coordinated the design teaching program for chemical engineering students. Professor Moran’s university work focused on increasing industrial relevance in teaching, with a particular emphasis on process design, safety and employability.

Connect with Sean on LinkedIn here, check out his Facebook page here and stay up-to-date on his thoughts, research and practice at his personal blog here.

Sean’s latest books are also available to order on the Elsevier Store. Use discount code STC317 at checkout and save up to 30% on your very own copy!

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