If we employ them they will come

Francis Sedgemore, Tuesday 8 January 2013 at 15:05 UTC

I have lost count of the number of times I’ve reacted negatively to bigwigs bemoaning the state of science and engineering in the UK. This time it’s James Dyson the vacuum cleaner pioneer, who calls for government to do more to boost Britain’s technology industry.

Dyson claims that this year there will be a deficit of 60,000 engineering graduates, but on its own this figure means diddly squit. Maybe Dyson elaborated, and it is the fault of the BBC reporter for leaving it out of the story. But labour market figures have never backed up the public utterances of science and engineering grandees who complain about the lack of talent from which industry can draw. With so many of our young people going through higher education, we should surely do more to encourage school leavers to study science-based subjects at degree level. The question of careers in science, engineering and technology is another matter entirely.

Says Dyson…

“26% of engineering graduates do not go into engineering or technical professions. More worrying is that 85% of all engineering and science postgraduates in our universities come from outside the UK.

“Yet nine in 10 leave the UK after they finish their studies. British knowledge is simply taken abroad.

“Engineering postgraduates need to be encouraged with generous salaries. A salary of £7,000 a year for postgraduate research is insulting.”

Why should those 26% go into engineering employment? They should follow their dreams, and whatever opportunities are open to them in the labour market. As for foreign students leaving the UK following graduation, good for them. These bright young people come over here for a few years, plough vast sums of money into our university system, work hard and get a good education. They then go home, very often to developing countries, and help build their local economies and raise standards of living for all. Is this not something to celebrate?

When it comes to salaries Dyson has a point, but the situation is worse than is portrayed with his simple reference to PhD student stipends of £7,000. Graduate salaries in both the state and private sectors are relatively poor, and this is one of the reasons why science and engineering graduates often choose other fields of work. Career paths are also poorly defined in technology-based industries, and after a while many feel forced to retrain.

On reading Dyson’s whinge I find myself sympathising with the government spokesman quoted in the article. This despite the blandness of their statement on support for engineering graduates.

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