Monday, 30 March 2015

The Missing Basics of Engineering: A Feel for Numbers: The "STEM Shortage"

Professional engineers tend to concur that one of the problems with new engineering graduates is a lack of a feel for numbers. Engineers are good at dealing with uncertainty, but universities are pretty bad at teaching this.

We are professional engineers, and (as we have said before) we think that the numbers which support the "STEM shortage " argument are pretty dodgy.

We were honoured yesterday to receive a comment from Peter Goodhew, author of "Teaching Engineering" and apparently a forthcoming RAE report on the shortage of engineers the RAE has been consistently claiming exists.

Peter told us that "There is no evidence..."most cannot get jobs as engineers" In a way, that is fair comment. Much may depend on the definition of a few key terms.

When we say "jobs as engineers", we mean exactly that. Jobs with a job title whose last word is "engineer". We know that this definition causes upset in academic circles, but that is the definition of "engineer" which we are using. 

In Peter's comment he said that " the vast majority get professional jobs, mainly in engineering.  Of the 77% of graduates who revealed their first destination job: 15% went on to further study, 78% started a professional job (two thirds of them in engineering), while only 7% took a non-professional job". He also says that he is basing his analysis on "the most recent cohort of engineering graduates for which we have data". 

We don't want to seem to be picking on Peter, we are grateful for his engagement, but these statements contain or imply the standard assumptions of all analyses which conclude there is a STEM shortage. We are not saying:

That engineering graduates don't get "professional jobs"

That engineering graduates don't get jobs under the HESA category  "Engineering & Technology"

That engineering graduates don't get jobs under other HESA categories corresponding to "STEM"

We are not even saying that engineering graduates don't get jobs "in engineering"- (they might have jobs as teaboys, or worse still, managers).

We are saying that most cannot get jobs as engineers (by our definition), but there actually isn't that much ground between Peter and us, even though he is using a broader definition.

He is saying that 2/3 of 78% of graduates get jobs "in engineering" - I make that 51.5%.

We are saying that most graduates cannot get jobs as engineers. This means that we are right if less than 50% of graduates get jobs as engineers.

So we only differ by about 1.5%. As we are both engineers with a feel for numbers, we would suspect that neither of us believe that our answers are precisely correct. As Emma Smith and Steven Gorard pointed out, the stats in this area are unreliable. We are going to need to add some error bars to our estimates.

Let us say in the interest of harmony that half of engineering graduates get jobs as engineers, or even Peter's term "in engineering". So, why do we think there is a shortage of engineering graduates if half of the ones we are producing now cannot get jobs "in engineering", let alone "as engineers"?