‘Shortage of science graduates’ theory does not add up

A new study reveals that a majority of science graduates do not work in highly skilled STEM occupations at any time in their careers

There are calls for greater efforts to attract more of the existing supply of science graduates into STEM, following a study by Leicester and Warwick universities showing that only a minority of science graduates work in the field.

The research – conducted by Professor Emma Smith of the University of Warwick and Dr Patrick White of the University of Leicester, and funded by the Nuffield Foundation – finds that the majority of science graduates choose not – or are unable – to work in highly skilled STEM occupations at any time in their careers.

Concerns about shortfalls of suitably qualified STEM graduates have been regularly raised for at least the last 70 years, and have resulted in numerous – often expensive – national initiatives to encourage more young people to study the sciences at school and at university.

Dr White said: “The findings of our new research suggests that, despite frequent and regular reports of a shortage of science graduates, there is little evidence to support these claims.

“We found STEM graduates were more likely to work in teaching and management than in key shortage areas such as science, engineering and ICT. 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. There was no evidence of older workers moving into STEM careers later in life.”

Professor Smith added: “We identified large differences in the proportion of different groups of STEM graduates entering highly skilled STEM jobs. While the majority of engineering graduates worked in these kinds of occupations, a relatively small number of biological science graduates were employed in these roles. Female graduates were also less likely to work in these types of jobs than their male counterparts. 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 findings suggest that, rather than there being an overall shortage of science graduates, only a minority are either able or willing to work in highly skilled STEM occupations.” 

The study also found:

 – In the medium to long term, STEM graduates did not have a better chance of entering graduate-level employment than those studying non-science subjects 

 – Although higher proportions of STEM students entered graduate jobs shortly after graduating, students with degrees in other subjects had caught up by their late twenties

 – In fact, computer science and engineering graduates had above average rates of unemployment six months after graduating

The authors state: “The findings suggest that, rather than there being an overall shortage of science graduates, only a minority are either able or willing to work in highly skilled STEM occupations. This could reflect the aspirations or expectations of the students themselves, or the recruitment practices of employers.

“However, the evidence produced by this study suggests that simply increasing the number of students studying STEM subjects at university – something that has proven very difficult – will be an ineffective way of addressing any labour shortages that may exist.

“Attracting more of those from the existing supply of science graduates would be a quicker and more cost-effective strategy.”

The study used administrative and survey data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), the Annual Population Survey (APS), the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70) and National Child Development Study (NCDS) to examine the career destinations of thousands of graduates shortly after they graduate and later in their lives.

Click here for the executive summary and full report.