Only half of science, technology, engineering and maths graduates work in jobs related to their degree course

For years there have been concerns have about shortages of science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) graduates. The UK governments has funded many national initiatives to encourage young people to study the sciences as a result, but new research claims that there is little evidence of such a shortage.

The study suggests that the majority of science graduates choose not to – or are unable to – work in Stem occupations. It concludes that increasing the number of Stem undergraduates – something that has proven difficult – is not an effective way of addressing any labour shortages that may exist.

The study used data from a range of sources including the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, the Higher Education Statistics Agency and the Annual Population Survey. It found that, while the vast majority (87%) of Stem graduates work in graduate-level jobs, just under half work in ‘highly skilled’ Stem positions. They define highly skilled as science, engineering and IT professionals; this doesn’t include teachers, health professionals or technicians. About 17% of Stem graduates work in the key ‘shortage’ areas as science, ICT or engineering professionals.

‘We found Stem graduates were more likely to work in teaching and management,’ says Patrick White of the University of Leicester, UK. ‘Unlike in areas such as education and health, many workers in the science sector moved out of highly skilled Stem jobs as their careers progressed.’

The study found biological science graduates were less likely to be employed in Stem jobs; (32% compared with 46% of all STEM graduates). The proportions entering graduate-level jobs were similar, however. And graduates from post-1992 institutions were much less likely to work in highly skilled Stem jobs compared to those graduating from high-status, research-intensive universities.

The report is interesting and draws together useful data, says Naomi Weir, deputy director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering. However, she has doubts over some of the conclusions the researchers reach. For example, they state that the engineering sector relies on engineering graduates and questions why more graduates from allied Stem backgrounds don’t go into these jobs in shortage areas. ‘But is that surprising? Not any Stem graduate can do any Stem job. Some of the shortage areas require specialist training and expertise. So their broad conclusion that there is no evidence to show that there is a shortage of Stem graduates is dangerous and irresponsible. While we may have enough Stem graduates to fill all Stem jobs, we do not have enough of some specialist Stem graduates to fill certain specialist jobs.’ Weir questions some of the conclusions given the researchers’ decision to exclude teaching and health from Stem roles. They do not consider technicians or business professionals, perhaps someone who has set up their own company, to be highly skilled Stem roles either, she adds. ‘The labour market is quite complex and although it makes sense from a numerical analysis point of view to have three simple occupation areas, the conclusions and discussion must take into account the greater complexity of the labour market.’

Their findings do, however, pose a useful policy question, she adds. ‘Is there a role for employers and education to provide support in re-training graduates to aid switching between specialisms?’