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Journal of Science Education and Technology

, Volume 28, Issue 1, pp 26–40 | Cite as

Where Do All the STEM Graduates Go? Higher Education, the Labour Market and Career Trajectories in the UK

  • Emma SmithEmail author
  • Patrick White
Article

Abstract

Problems with the supply of highly skilled science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workers have been reported by employers and governments for many decades, in the UK, the USA, and elsewhere. This paper presents some key findings from a project funded by the Nuffield Foundation that examined patterns of education and employment among STEM graduates in the UK. Five large-scale secondary datasets—comprising administrative, survey, cross-sectional and longitudinal data—were analysed in order to provide the most comprehensive account possible. The findings suggest that there is no overall shortage of STEM graduates but there is considerable variation in the career outcomes and trajectories of different groups. Recruitment to STEM degrees has stalled over the past 20 years but most STEM graduates never work in highly skilled STEM jobs—in any case, the majority of professional STEM workers do not have (or presumably need) degrees. Some groups of STEM graduates are currently under-represented in the highly skilled STEM workforce and increased recruitment from these groups could grow the numbers entering STEM occupations. However, employers may have to modify their views on exactly what constitutes a valuable or desirable employee and to what extent it is their responsibility to train their workers.

Keywords

STEM graduates Higher education Labour shortages 

Introduction

This paper provides a summary of the findings from a series of recent research projects looking at the educational and employment trajectories of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates in the UK. These findings represent the most complete account yet of participation along the UK STEM pipeline.

The analyses used existing data on hundreds of thousands of individuals, from several different sources. By using both longitudinal and cross-sectional datasets, we were able to examine patterns of participation in STEM education and careers across the life course: from university, to early employment and through to later life careers.

The wider context for our research is a longstanding concern about the supply of STEM graduates and a so-called STEM skills deficit. In trying to understand whether there is a shortfall of STEM skills, we have asked the following questions:
  1. i.

    What are the patterns of participation in STEM degrees between 1988 and 2012?

     
  2. ii.

    What proportion of STEM graduates enter highly skilled STEM jobs1 shortly after graduating?

     
  3. iii.

    What proportion of STEM graduates aged 25 to 64 worked in STEM shortage areas between 2004 and 2010?

     
  4. iv.

    How do the career trajectories of STEM graduates change between the age of 26 and 42? How does this vary according to subject specialism?

     
  5. v.

    How do the career trajectories for STEM graduates compare with those with degrees in non-STEM subjects?

     
  6. vi.

    Are there different patterns of labour market participation for STEM graduates with degrees from different types of institution?

     
  7. vii.

    What proportion of HS STEM workers are non-graduates? Has this changed over time?

     

These questions serve as foci for the organisation of this paper. Because of space limitations, we are not able to address gender issues or consider the role of immigration in the STEM shortage debate. However, see Smith (2012) and Smith and White (2018) for further detail on our research, especially as it relates to gendered participation in STEM shortage subjects. Before summarising our findings, we briefly outline some of the concerns about the supply of STEM graduates that persist in the UK context and provide a short overview of the data used in our research.

Background to the Study

‘Why there is an engineering shortage in the UK’ The Telegraph, 6th June 2017.

‘Skills Shortages Holding Back UK’s Economic Recovery’, BBC online, 1st December 2014

Media accounts frequently report problems with the supply of highly skilled (HS) STEM workers. These reports echo the concerns expressed by both industry and governmental bodies that the supply of STEM graduates is crucial to the current and future economic prosperity of the nation but that employers are currently unable to recruit a sufficient number of workers with the right skills (e.g. CBI 2014; Select Committee on Science and Technology 2012). A shortage of adequately skilled STEM workers, it is argued, is holding back economic growth and placing UK industry at a disadvantage in relation to international competitor countries (e.g. Cm 8980 2014; Wakeham Review 2016). Numerous corporate and government bodies have examined the supply of the STEM workforce and have found it wanting in terms of both quantity and quality. As a consequence, policymakers have responded to calls from industry, government and universities to enact policies and initiatives—often requiring the investment of considerable amounts of public funds—aimed at remedying the situation.

Improving the recruitment, retention and training of the next generation of STEM professionals has been an area of perennial concern for policymakers and employer organisations in the UK and elsewhere (e.g. Cm 8980 2014; EU Skills Panorama 2012; National Academy of Sciences 2010). According to the Confederation of British Industry and other sector skills organisations, employers report widespread difficulties in recruiting people with STEM skills at every level: from new apprentices to more experienced workers (CBI 2014; IET 2015; Engineering UK 2016). In a society with increasing demands for scientific- and technological-based goods and services, a shortage of appropriately skilled workers is, according to some, a threat to our ‘productivity, competitive position and level of innovation’ (Greenfield et al. 2002, p. 27).

These accounts have not gone unchallenged, however. Other commentators have argued that the supply of STEM workers is more than enough to meet demand and that the picture is much healthier than is often suggested. Rather than there being a shortage of STEM professionals, they claim that many highly qualified STEM graduates struggle to find appropriate employment and instead find work in non-STEM fields, are ‘underemployed’ in STEM occupations that do not require their full range of skills and knowledge, or are unemployed (e.g. Teitelbaum 2014; Smith and White 2017; Grattan Institute 2016).

Whether a sufficient number of highly qualified STEM workers are being educated and trained in the UK, and elsewhere, is an important question. The answer has implications not only for educators, employers and policymakers but also for individuals who are currently engaged in, or are considering entering, education or training in this area. At the moment, however, there is insufficient evidence to resolve this debate.

This lack of good-quality evidence is perhaps surprising given that STEM skills shortage debates are not new. Concerns about the supply of highly skilled STEM workers have been central to public policy on education, science and engineering in the USA and the UK since at least the time of the Second World War (e.g. Bush 1945; Steelman 1948; Cmd. 6824 1946). Academic studies as far back as the 1950s have criticised the proponents of the shortage debate for a ‘misunderstanding of economic theory as well as … exaggeration of the empirical evidence’ (Arrow and Capron 1959, p. 292). They have also drawn attention to the conceptual, methodological and ideological obstacles to producing good-quality evidence about whether or not there is a shortage or surplus of highly skilled scientists and engineers (e.g. Wilkinson and Mace 1973; Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy 1995; Smith 2017). Such concerns extend to the present: with a recent review into higher education and STEM subjects by the UK House of Lords concluding that:

…lack of data makes it very difficult to assess whether there is in fact a shortage of STEM graduates and postgraduates and in which sectors. This is critical because, if it is not known whether there is a shortage, remedial actions cannot be put in place (Select Committee on Science and Technology 2012, p. 6).

The aim of this paper is to contribute to a much needed body of evidence on STEM skills supply by summarising our findings from a series of large-scale studies that have looked at the trajectories of STEM graduates as they move from higher education into their early career destinations and beyond.

Data Used in the Analysis

The findings presented in this paper are taken from a series of studies that have involved the analysis of five national datasets:
  • Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) data

  • Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) data

  • The Annual Population Survey (APS)

  • The 1958 National Child Development Study (NCDS58)

  • The 1970 British Birth Cohort Study (BCS70)

There is no space to provide a detailed account of each dataset here, especially one that will satisfy an international audience, but brief details about the data used in the study are provided in the Appendix.

This paper draws exclusively on secondary data derived from ‘official’ sources. We are fortunate in the UK to have access to high-quality data of this scope and scale. However, one of the challenges in using official data to explore trends over the long term is that they are susceptible to changes in the official definition of key variables, such as occupational group.2 For this reason, our analysis covers the time period that allows the most stable analysis of comparable data for each of the six datasets. This means that our focus concludes in 2012 to coincide with key changes in ‘official’ definitions of occupational group, as well as in how early graduate career destinations are measured. Given the longevity of the patterns that we present here, there is no reason to believe that more recent data would reveal new trends, although this remains an important caveat to the summary presented here.

The next section summarises the key findings from this series of studies. They are structured according to the six expected observations that were outlined above. The analysis presented here is largely descriptive. This was determined by the quality and availability of data as well as by the research questions and our approach to seek out the most parsimonious patterns in the best-quality data that was available to us.

Findings

What Are the Patterns of Participation in STEM Degrees Between 1988 and 2012?

Since the late 1980s, the number of candidates who apply to undergraduate study3 at university in the UK has more than doubled, reflecting decades-long policies by successive governments to turn higher education from an ‘elite’ to a ‘mass’ experience (Furlong and Cartmel 2009). Trends in the application data for selected STEM subject areas are shown in Fig. 1. The data show that applications for many ‘shortage’ subjects have remained flat over the last thirty years, despite growth in science-based subjects overall. Subject areas such as the allied medical sciences and, to some extent, the biological sciences have received an increasing number of applications—largely as a result of recruitment to subjects such sports science, psychology and nursing. However, recruitment to other STEM subjects in the physical and engineering sciences has not grown substantially either in proportional or in absolute terms. For example, 5% of all applications from UK domiciled candidates in 1988 were to physical science subjects but by 2013, this had fallen to 3%. While there was a relatively small increase in the number of applications to these subjects, they have not retained their share of applications in a rapidly expanding university sector. Engineering has fared even worse. Despite decades of initiatives to encourage recruitment to engineering subjects, recruitment has actually declined in absolute terms: in 1994, there were 23,390 applications from UK candidates to study engineering subjects at UK universities but in 2012, there were only 21,832.
Fig. 1

University applicants for selected STEM subject areas, UK domiciled undergraduate applicants, 1988–2012

These patterns in the application data are reflected in the numbers and proportions of applicants who are eventually accepted to study at university. While recruitment to subjects such as psychology and sports science has increased, acceptances to the natural sciences and engineering have stalled, reflecting the slowing demand for places shown above. For example, in 1986, just over 2800 students were accepted to undergraduate programmes in chemistry. By 2012, the figure had increased by just 1000 students, despite undergraduate recruitment more than tripling over the same period. Reflecting the static pattern of demand for places noted above, the numbers recruited to undergraduate degrees in electronic and electrical engineering have hardly changed in thirty years: from 2652 students in 1986 to 2848 in 2012.

As can be seen from these data, there is no evidence that the many costly initiatives to increase the number of students studying ‘shortage’ STEM subjects have worked. In absolute terms, recruitment to these subjects has remained relatively flat and—given the increase in the number of undergraduates over the period—has actually fallen in proportional terms. It is not the case that this is simply down to a lack of places; applications have been remarkably stable over the period studied. There is certainly no sign of a rush to study these STEM subjects in order to take advantage of the labour market opportunities that would be expected when skill shortages exist.

These findings are interesting in terms of the ‘shortage’ debate. On the one hand, the continued efforts to expand recruitment to particular STEM degrees have been unsuccessful, perhaps lending weight to the arguments of those who have claimed a continued shortage of ‘crisis’ proportions. But this can only be considered a problem if it also can be shown that an increase in STEM graduates from these subject areas is needed. As our findings presented in the following sections demonstrate, it is far from clear that this is the case.

What Proportion of STEM Graduates Enter Highly Skilled STEM Jobs Shortly After Graduating?

A central focus of the STEM shortage debate has been the lack of highly qualified graduates entering highly skilled1 (HS) STEM sector jobs. Only about one third of non-medical STEM graduates who entered employment were working in HS STEM jobs six months after graduation. However, there is considerable variation in the proportions of graduates with different STEM degrees gaining HS STEM positions. For example, between 55 and 60% of engineering science graduates who gained employment were working in HS STEM jobs six months after graduating, but for biological science graduates, the proportion was just 16%. This is only slightly higher than the average proportion of graduates from non-STEM subjects, which was 12% on average, and in some years was actually lower than this. It is important to note that not only do a minority of STEM graduates who find work soon after graduating are employed in HS STEM positions but that some subject groups do no better than non-STEM graduates (Fig. 2). This raises the issue of the desirability—or need—for STEM degrees to work in HS STEM positions, which is a topic we return to later.
Fig. 2

Proportion of graduates gaining employment and entering HS STEM occupations, by subject group

If only a minority of STEM graduates who find employment shortly after graduation go into HS STEM positions, there would not seem to be a shortage of STEM graduates per se. There may be a shortage of STEM graduates who want to work in HS STEM positions, or STEM graduates who employers are prepared to employ in such positions, however. Even in the engineering sciences—the STEM subject group with the highest level of HS STEM employment—only slightly more than half of employed graduates who move into highly skilled science work shortly after graduation. It is also important to consider that these figures only include those graduates that found work and that considerable proportions of STEM graduates are unemployed at this point of their careers. In the next section, we shift focus from immediate destinations after graduation and look at STEM graduates of all ages.

What Proportion of STEM Graduates Aged 25 to 64 Work in STEM Shortage Areas Between 2004 and 2010?

While the DLHE survey, discussed in the last section, provides data on immediate post-graduation destinations, APS data can tell us about the occupations of the working-age population as a whole. Table 1 shows the proportion of STEM graduates working in graduate-level4 and HS STEM jobs for combined APS data from 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010 (three key shortage occupations—science, engineering and IT professions—are shown highlighted). The 12 occupational groups included in the table were the largest ‘recruiters’ of STEM graduates and, combined, make up over 60% of the employment destinations of APS respondents with STEM degrees.
Table 1

Occupational sectors for employed STEM graduates aged 25 to 64

 

All STEM

Eng. Sci.

Math/Comp Sci

Bio. Sci.

Phys. Sci.

N

%

N

%

N

%

N

%

N

%

Graduate job

39,448

87

7229

86

6288

85

5531

82

5610

85

HS STEM job

21,068

46

5148

61

3418

46

2168

32

2673

41

Production managers

2250

5

1182

14

124

2

95

1

272

4

Functional managers

3865

8

877

10

1138

15

560

8

773

12

Science professionals

1695

4

43

0.5

24

0.3

702

10

642

10

Engineering professionals

2957

6

2330

28

101

1

42

0.6

281

4

IT professionals

3133

7

588

7

1944

26

116

2

359

5

Health professionals

4796

10

20

0.2

11

0.1

450

7

91

1

Teaching professionals

4145

9

332

4

1054

14

1076

16

1012

15

Business/statistical profs

1054

2

162

2

447

6

120

2

209

3

Architects and planners

1592

3

158

2

14

0.2

9

0.1

52

1

Eng. and Sci. technicians

702

1

167

2

54

1

161

2

177

3

IT service delivery

655

1

99

1

359

5

51

1

94

1

Associated health profs

3090

7

17

0.2

18

0.2

174

3

48

1

Source: APS 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010 combined

The vast majority (over 80%) of STEM graduates who were in work were employed in graduate-level jobs. But a significantly lower proportion worked in highly skilled STEM jobs—this varied from over 60% of engineering graduates to around one third of biological science graduates. Just 17% of employed STEM graduates held positions in the three occupational groups that are the focus of most STEM shortage concerns: 4% were science professionals, 6% worked as engineering professionals and 7% were employed as IT professionals. More STEM graduates worked in teaching or functional management than in any of the three shortage areas. If there are genuine shortages in these areas, it must be the case that the remaining 83% of STEM graduates either: do not wish to work in science, engineering or IT; choose to work in other STEM occupational areas; prefer the pay and conditions offered in other occupational sectors; or are considered unsuitable by STEM employers in shortage areas.

Table 1 also shows that employment in the three key ‘shortage’ areas is dominated by STEM graduates from particular subject areas. For example, IT professional occupations were the most popular occupational destinations for employed mathematics and computer science graduates, with 26% finding work in this area. But only 2% of biological sciences and 7% of engineering sciences graduates in employment worked in professional IT positions. A similar picture can be seen for engineering professional occupations. Again, more than a quarter (28%) of engineering science graduates were employed in this area, compared to only 6% of STEM graduates overall, 4% of those with physical science degrees and 1% of maths and computer science graduates. Professional science occupations account for the destinations of only 10% of employed biological science graduates and 10% of physical science graduates, but much smaller proportions of graduates from other STEM areas work as professional scientists.

Table 2 shows the subject specialisms of graduates working in selected HS STEM occupations. It shows that, for example, 73% of graduates working in engineering professional roles have an undergraduate degree in engineering. So while the data shown earlier indicate that the career destinations of engineering graduates are very favourable in comparison with graduates from other non-medical STEM subject areas, we can also see that professional engineering jobs remain largely closed to those without a degree in the subject, with little movement into these jobs by graduates either from other disciplines or from engineers seeking work in other sectors.
Table 2

Subject specialisms of graduates working in HS STEM and selected higher recruiting occupations (%)

 

N

Bio Sci.

Phys Sci.

Math/Comp Sci.

Eng. Sci.

Social studies

Bus Admin

Other subject

Production managers

3284

3

9

4

37

4

16

27

Functional managers

10,386

6

8

11

9

9

31

26

Science professionals

1854

40

36

1

2

1

1

19

Engineering professionals

3367

1

9

3

73

1

4

9

IT professionals

4083

3

9

50

15

3

8

12

Health professionals

5301

9

2

0.2

0.4

1

0.5

87

Teaching professionals

19,426

6

5

6

2

6

4

71

Research professionals

1013

19

14

9

4

14

5

35

Legal professionals

2538

1

1

1

1

9

2

85

Business professionals

3927

3

6

12

4

13

48

14

Architects

1938

1

3

1

8

4

7

76

Science/Eng. technicians

929

19

20

6

19

3

4

29

IT technicians

980

5

10

39

10

5

10

21

All HS STEM jobs

30,367

8

9

12

18

5

13

35

All jobs

119,467

6

6

7

7

9

13

52

Source: APS 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010 combined

A similar issue arises for science professional roles, which were largely taken by biological and physical science graduates. Employees with degrees in these two areas made up 76% of the graduate workforce in this sector. In contrast, half of the graduates working in IT professional positions had a degree in a subject other than mathematics or computing, with 15% of these professional IT jobs being undertaken by engineering graduates. Although those with degrees in engineering, maths and computing make up nearly two thirds of the graduate workforce in IT, this sector does seem to recruit graduates from a wider range of subject backgrounds than does, for example, engineering. However, if the ‘shortage’ accounts are to be believed, this more catholic approach to recruitment has not yet provided the labour force that is needed in this sector.

It is unsurprising that the three ‘shortage’ occupational areas recruit largely from graduates in allied subject disciplines. However, given that ‘shortage’ accounts have persisted for many decades, and employers continue to complain about their inability to fill posts in these occupational areas, it is surprising how few graduates from other STEM areas are employed in STEM shortage occupations. Whether the explanation for this can be found in the preferences or perceptions of STEM graduates or the recruitment practices of employers is an important question, but one that goes beyond the scope of these data.

How Do the Career Trajectories of STEM Graduates Change Between the Age of 26 and 42? How Does This Vary According to Subject Specialism?

We used longitudinal data from the BCS70 to look at career trajectories of respondents from ages 26 to 42. The vast majority (83%) of STEM graduates were working in a graduate job by the age of 26, a figure that rises at age 30 and again at age 34 (Table 3). This suggests that there is some later movement into graduate jobs, even for those who have not entered graduate-level positions some years after finishing their degree.
Table 3

Long-term employment trajectories of STEM graduates, ages 26 to 42

 

Age 26

Age 30

Age 34

Age 38

Age 42

N

%

N

%

N

%

N

%

N

%

Graduate job

590

83

636

87

551

91

543

90

565

88

Highly skilled STEM job

590

50

636

49

551

48

543

44

565

40

Highest recruiting occupational groups

 Functional managers

34

6

49

8

73

13

75

14

74

13

 Science professionals

25

4

27

4

25

5

16

3

16

3

 Engineering profs

43

7

36

6

32

6

23

4

22

4

 IT professionals

62

10

77

12

60

11

41

8

40

7

 Health professionals

59

10

50

8

47

8

50

9

60

11

 Teaching professionals

62

10

58

9

52

9

56

10

66

12

Source: BCS70

In contrast, the proportion of STEM graduates working in highly skilled (HS) STEM jobs fell slightly over this period, as did the share working as science or engineering professionals. At no point between the ages of 26 and 42 were more than 11% of STEM graduates working in these two key ‘shortage’ areas of the labour market, and by age 42, only 7% were employed in these occupational groups. A larger proportion (10%) of STEM graduates entered professional IT roles but this peaked at 12% at age 30 before falling at each subsequent sweep to only 7% by age 42.

While the proportion of engineering science graduates working in graduate-level jobs remained high across each sweep of the cohort study, the percentage employed in HS STEM jobs fell as the cohort members became older (Table 4). Only a minority of engineering science graduates were employed in engineering professional occupations each of the age points surveyed. Less than one-third (31%) worked in this kind of occupation at age 24 and the numbers fell at each subsequent sweep. The data suggest that some movement out of these jobs (and engineering professional roles in particular) may have been into managerial roles, which might account for some of the decline in HS STEM employment among this group.
Table 4

Long-term employment trajectories of engineering graduates, ages 26 to 42

 

Age 26

Age 30

Age 34

Age 38

Age 42

N

%

N

%

N

%

N

%

N

%

Graduate job

112

85

121

82

108

87

101

85

101

87

Highly skilled STEM job

112

69

121

63

108

62

101

60

101

56

Highest recruiting occupational groups

 Production managers

14

12

13

11

10

9

21

21

15

15

 Functional managers

7

6

9

7

17

16

10

10

8

8

 Engineering professionals

35

31

28

23

24

22

19

19

17

17

 IT professionals

13

12

24

20

16

15

10

10

14

14

Source: BCS70

The trajectories of physical science graduates show similar patterns of attrition from both highly skilled STEM jobs and employment in key ‘shortage’ areas over the course of their careers (Table 5). While 12% worked as science professionals at age 30, this declined to just 7% by age 38. Eight percent were employed as IT professionals at age 30, but this had fallen to only 3% by age 42. The most common occupational destination for physical science graduates was teaching. At every BCS70 sweep from ages 26 to 38, a larger proportion of physical science graduates worked in this occupational group than any other. At age 42, this was matched by the proportion working as functional managers. By this point, functional management and teaching accounted for the employment of 30% of the physical science graduates who were in work.
Table 5

Long-term employment trajectories of physical science graduates, ages 26 to 42

Physical science graduates

Age 26

Age 30

Age 34

Age 38

Age 42

N

%

N

%

N

%

N

%

N

%

Graduate job

127

77

151

85

124

91

126

86

137

84

Highly skilled STEM job

127

42

151

50

124

47

126

40

137

40

Highest recruiting occupational groups

 Functional managers

12

9

11

7

11

9

17

13

20

15

 Science professionals

14

11

18

12

13

10

9

7

10

7

 IT professionals

6

5

12

8

11

9

7

6

4

3

 Teaching professionals

18

14

22

15

22

18

19

15

20

15

Source: BCS70

While biological science graduate were as likely as other STEM graduates to secure graduate-level jobs, they were less likely to work in HS STEM occupations (Table 6). The largest proportion working in these roles was 33%, at ages 26 and 30. However, by age 42, only a quarter of biological science graduates were working in the HS STEM sector as a whole, a lower proportion than those working as teaching professionals (27%). The relatively high proportion of biological science graduates who work as teachers is in stark contrast to the proportion working as professional scientists, which fell from 10% at age 26 to only 5% at age 42. By age 42, more than five times as many biological scientists were working as teachers than as science professionals.
Table 6

Long-term employment trajectories of biological science graduates, ages 26 to 42

Biological Sci. graduates

Age 26

Age 30

Age 34

Age 38

Age 42

N

%

N

%

N

%

N

%

N

%

Graduate job

82

83

89

85

76

87

81

95

84

89

Highly skilled STEM job

82

33

89

33

76

32

81

23

84

25

Highest recruiting occupational groups

 Functional managers

3

4

5

6

9

12

13

16

11

13

 Science professionals

8

10

6

8

6

8

5

6

4

5

 Teaching professionals

18

22

16

18

15

20

18

22

23

27

Source: BCS70

The small numbers of cohort members in these subgroups mean that we must be cautious about drawing firm conclusions at the level of degree subject. However, our analysis of NCDS data revealed very similar findings, even at degree subject level. While the exact proportions in particular cells may not be replicated at the national level, the consistency of the patterns found in all the datasets used in the projects suggests that the patterns we found are likely to be representative of the broader context.

In summary, our analysis of the longitudinal cohort data revealed the following patterns. First, graduate-level employment among STEM graduates remains high over the course of cohort members’ early careers. At no point between the ages of 26 and 42 did this fall below 83%. In contrast, employment in HS STEM positions is highest at age 26 (50%) but falls at each subsequent survey sweep to 40% by age 42. Professional-level employment in the ‘shortage areas’ of science, IT and engineering also fell slightly as the cohort ages. There are differences between graduates in different subjects, with engineering graduates having both the highest rates of HS STEM employment and in their own field. Biological science graduates are notable for both the small proportion working in HS STEM jobs (33% at best) and small proportion who held professional science roles (peaking at 10%). Regardless of subject specialism, however, the trend from graduation to early middle-age is one of attrition from skilled jobs in the STEM sector.

How Do the Career Trajectories for STEM Graduates Compare with Those with Degrees in Non-STEM Subjects?

So far, our reporting has focused only on STEM graduates. However, in a situation of labour shortage, where STEM skills are at a premium, we might expect STEM graduates to have more favourable employment outcomes than their peers with degrees in other subjects. In this section, we compare the career trajectories of STEM and non-STEM graduates, starting with occupational destinations six months after graduation.
  1. a)

    Early career destinations of STEM and non-STEM graduates

     
Between 2002/3 and 2010/11, there were few differences in the overall proportion of STEM and non-STEM graduates entering graduate-level jobs shortly after they left university (Fig. 3). These data show that, as a group, STEM graduates do not have substantially higher chances of obtaining graduate-level employment. While graduates from some subject areas—such as the engineering sciences—have better than average prospects in this respect, graduates in the biological sciences actually fare slightly worse than their peers with languages and social studies degrees. The variation between STEM subjects is, in this respect, greater than the difference between STEM and non-STEM subjects at the aggregate level. Although not shown in Fig. 3, unemployment data for recent graduates also show similar patterns among STEM and non-STEM graduates, with few substantial differences between the two subject areas. For example, over the period studied, around 8% of language graduates were unemployed six months after graduation, compared with approximately 10% of engineers. In relation to both graduate-level employment and unemployment levels, STEM degrees offer little in terms of a ‘premium’ in their value in the labour market.
Fig. 3

Percentage of students entering employment who gain graduate-level-type jobs, selected subject areas

  1. b)

    Employment patterns among STEM and non-STEM graduates in the wider workforce

     
Table 7 provides further evidence that differences between individual STEM subjects tend to be larger than those between STEM and non-STEM subjects as a whole. Similar proportions of STEM and non-STEM degree holders, who were aged 25 to 64 and were in employment, were working in graduate-level jobs. Unsurprisingly, a much lower proportion of non-STEM graduates (13%) held HS STEM jobs compared to STEM graduates (46%). However, employment in HS STEM positions is certainly not uncommon for non-STEM graduates. Over one quarter of employed business and administration graduates worked in HS STEM jobs, as did 16% of those with degrees in social studies.
Table 7

Graduate-level and HS STEM employment, employed graduates aged 25 to 64, selected subject areas

 

Graduate-level job

HS STEM job

N

%

N

%

All STEM subjects

39,448

87

21,068

46

All non-STEM subjects

47,090

82

7756

13

Total

86,538

84

28,824

28

Biological Science

5531

82

2168

32

Physical Science

5610

85

2673

41

Mathematics

1950

87

839

37

Computer science

3504

85

2163

52

Engineering

7229

86

5148

61

Technology

928

77

401

33

Social studies

7702

81

1500

16

Business and administration

12,284

81

3985

26

Languages/linguistics

4442

78

460

8

Historical/philosophical studies

3688

78

558

12

Source: APS 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010 combined

  1. c)

    Occupational trajectories of STEM and non-STEM graduates

     
The cohort data allowed us to compare the occupational trajectories of STEM and non-STEM graduates. As can be seen in Table 8, the majority of STEM and non-STEM graduates were employed in managerial or professional occupations in every sweep of the study. Professional occupations were the most common destination at every age point, with substantial proportions of both STEM and non-STEM graduates also finding employment in managerial and associate professional and technical (APT) jobs.
Table 8

Major occupational groups for employed BCS70 STEM and non-STEM graduates, ages 26 to 42 (%)

 

Age 26

Age 30

Age 34

Age 38

Age 42

STEM (%)

Non-S (%)

STEM (%)

Non-S (%)

STEM (%)

Non-S (%)

STEM (%)

Non-S (%)

STEM (%)

Non-S (%)

Managerial

14

23

16

20

25

25

28

25

27

25

Professional

53

39

51

35

51

41

45

39

45

43

APT

17

16

22

27

18

23

19

24

18

21

Administrative

8

16

5

10

2

8

3

9

4

6

Non-graduate

8

7

6

8

4

4

5

4

6

4

Total N

590

608

636

661

551

561

543

541

565

582

Source: BCS70

Two key patterns emerged from our analyses. First, STEM graduates were more likely to be employed in professional positions compared to those with degrees in non-STEM subjects. This was the case at every survey sweep but, by age 42, the proportions were very similar, at 45% for STEM graduates and 43% for non-STEM graduates. However, graduates in non-STEM subjects were more likely than STEM graduates to take up managerial positions early in their careers. At ages 26 and 30, substantially greater proportions of non-STEM graduates worked as managers, but by age 34, STEM graduates had ‘caught up’ and at ages 38 and 42 were more likely to be managers than their non-STEM graduate peers.

Although there are differences between the proportions of STEM and non-STEM graduates in managerial and professional occupations at different points in their careers, there is certainly no evidence of an overall career advantage for cohort members with STEM degrees. While these data are from the BCS, the analysis of the NCDS produced similar findings, suggesting that these patterns are not unique to a particular cohort.

The above analyses have shown that differences in employment outcomes between STEM subject areas are actually greater than those between STEM and non-STEM areas. There is also relatively little variation between the immediate- and longer-term occupational destinations of STEM and non-STEM graduates in terms of graduate-level employment. There is some evidence of a lag in the time it takes non-STEM graduates to attain graduate-level jobs (especially professional jobs) and this may be due in part to the non-specialist nature of many non-STEM degrees. This suggests that encouraging students to study STEM degrees on the basis of better labour market outcomes is ethically questionable. STEM graduates have little advantage over non-STEM graduates in terms of securing graduate-level employment and, perhaps most importantly, most STEM graduates never work in HS STEM jobs.

Are there Different Patterns of Labour Market Participation for STEM Graduates with Degrees from Different Types of Institution?

One of the most important findings from our analyses of the HESA First Destination data was the disparity between the proportions of graduates from different types of higher education institutions who enter HS STEM jobs shortly after graduating. We compared Russell Group institutions with those members of the University Alliance (UA) and Million+ (M+) groups. Russell Group members are generally older, research-intensive, more prestigious institutions, whereas UA/M+ tend to be newer and more focused on teaching. More than twice the proportion of graduates from Russell Group universities entered HS STEM jobs compared to those who studied at the newer institutions that were members of the UA or M+ groups. The difference between STEM graduates was of a similar size with, in 2010/11 for example, 60% of those from Russell Group institutions finding HS STEM positions but only 26% of those from UA/M+ universities doing so. As Table 9 shows, disparities in individual STEM subjects were sometimes even larger. In the same year, only 7% of biological science graduates from UA/M+ institutions found work in HS STEM subjects compared to 23% of their peers with degrees from Russell Group universities. What type of institution students attend clearly affects their likelihood of gaining HS STEM employment shortly after graduation.
Table 9

Employed graduates working in HS STEM jobs six months after leaving university, HESA First Destination Surveys, 2002/03 to 2010/11

Highly skilled STEM jobs

Russell Group

UA/M+

02/03

06/07

10/11

02/03

06/07

10/11

N

%

N

%

N

%

N

%

N

%

N

%

All STEM subjects

9239

53

11,370

61

12,347

60

4702

29

5163

31

5227

26

All subjects

11,813

35

15,010

42

16,327

42

6635

17

7690

19

7634

15

Biological sciences

795

25

883

26

773

23

442

13

493

12

436

8

Physical sciences

859

33

1190

48

1292

47

350

28

386

33

432

30

Mathematical sciences

539

41

717

55

906

59

59

20

80

38

83

32

Computer science

811

60

773

75

639

80

1488

43

1498

52

1207

49

Engineering and technology

1505

62

1877

75

1946

74

979

44

1075

51

1028

53

What Proportion of HS STEM Workers Are Non-graduates? Has This Changed over Time?

Our analysis of APS data from 2004 to 2010 suggests that over that period, just over half of all HS STEM positions were held by non-graduates (Table 10). Disaggregating the data by age group shows that this proportion is lower among younger workers, at 37% for those aged 25–29 years, but higher among older workers, at 64% for those aged 55–59 years. In terms of STEM ‘shortage’ occupations, just under half (43%) of IT professionals did not have degrees and 60% of professional engineers were non-graduates (higher than the figure for HS STEM jobs in general). As with STEM professions as a whole, younger workers were more likely to have degrees than their older colleagues but in every age group, there were substantial proportions of non-graduates in these two professions.
Table 10

Percentage of non-graduates working in key occupational sectors, by selected age group

SOC group

All respondents

Age 25–29

Age 35–39

Age 45–49

Age 55–59

N

%

N

%

N

%

N

%

N

%

Production manager

9228

72

283

58

1291

66

1634

73

1292

79

Functional manager

13,394

54

741

42

2267

49

2288

57

1348

65

Science profession

533

22

29

7

69

18

104

33

61

32

Eng professional

5311

60

378

43

712

54

856

67

721

70

IT professional

3335

43

417

35

680

42

450

49

210

50

Health professional

681

11

69

10

117

11

101

11

60

11

Teaching profession

5680

21

207

8

439

14

765

20

1425

34

Legal professional

280

10

15

4

39

8

39

10

48

16

Business profession

2425

36

195

23

390

34

356

38

321

48

Sci/Eng technician

3621

79

293

62

496

76

604

85

508

84

IT technician

2110

67

367

61

357

66

299

72

149

77

HS STEM job

36,475

53

2937

37

5463

49

5798

59

4436

64

Graduate job

117,361

54

8752

40

17,442

52

19,273

58

14,224

61

All jobs

393,907

77

36,249

68

56,165

75

60,888

79

49,396

82

Source: APS 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010 combined

Relatively small proportions of non-graduates work in science professional occupations, for example, the figure for 25- to 29-year-olds was only 7% and among 55 to 59-year-olds, at 32%, it was much lower than in IT or engineering. It would appear that either jobs in professional science are more likely require a degree or the ratio of positions to applicants is more favourable than in other STEM occupational areas.

Discussion

Understanding the relationship between supply and demand in the STEM sector is not straightforward and the complexity of the phenomenon has been a central feature of discussions in the area for many decades. Our research has sought to understand, using the best data available, the broad patterns of participation in STEM sector occupations over the long term. It has focused on graduates but also considered the careers of non-graduates working in STEM fields. It has examined occupational destinations shortly after graduation, longer-term career trajectories and also historical trends in the STEM labour market as a whole. Although the demand for STEM workers has not been measured directly—through an examination of unfilled posts for example—patterns in the STEM labour market and the trajectories of STEM graduates and workers can be used as indicators of demand. As with any investigation of this type, we are limited by the quality and scope of the data available to us. Accounting for patterns and trends in the data is also difficult and we have, wherever possible, offered the most parsimonious explanation for our findings. Nevertheless, despite these limitations in the type of data that is available for analysis, this study represents the most comprehensive analysis of the career trajectories of STEM graduates in the UK, and the consistency of findings both within and between the different datasets means this study makes an important contribution to the work on supply and demand in the STEM sector.

So what do our analyses tell us about the extent of any STEM shortages? In this section, we highlight some of our most important findings and explore the issues they raise for the ‘STEM shortage’ debate.

The supply of STEM graduates, particularly to some subjects, appears to be remarkably stable—in absolute terms—even in the context of an expanding undergraduate population. The data on applications and admissions suggest that the provision for undergraduate degrees in ‘shortage’ STEM subjects has remained stable simply because demand had not risen. Given that UK universities compete for students and are financially rewarded for recruiting additional entrants, the simplest explanation for this lack of expansion is a limit in the number of students wishing to study these subjects. This is notable not simply in terms of the failure of initiatives intended to target these areas but also because of the longstanding and widely publicised labour shortages in business and industry. Either students have not received this message or it has not motivated them to change their career plans. The extent to which this is a problem, however, depends on whether the nature and size of any shortages. As the following discussion explains, our analyses suggest that, even in the areas where shortages have been reported as being most severe, simply increasing the number of graduates is unlikely to be an efficient way of growing recruitment to HS STEM positions.

The majority of STEM graduates never work in HS STEM jobs, even in subject areas such as engineering that are most successful in this respect. Some STEM subjects, biology in particular, have very poor records of supplying HS STEM workers. STEM graduates are no more likely to enter graduate positions than those with degrees in other subjects, and are just as likely to be unemployed—there is no evidence for a labour market advantage as one might expect in a shortage situation. Any mismatch between the supply and demand for STEM workers cannot, therefore, be attributed to the number of students graduating with STEM degrees. Problems with the ‘supply’ of STEM workers are more likely to be explained by the willingness of graduates to pursue careers in STEM fields and/or the recruitment practices of employers.

One important finding from our work is the narrow field from which many key shortage occupations still recruit. Perhaps it is unsurprising that the three key ‘shortage’ occupational areas (science, IT and engineering professionals) recruit largely from graduates in allied subject disciplines. Engineering graduates might be expected to be more attracted, and often better suited, to professional engineering roles. Similarly, it is understandable that those with maths and computer science degrees are over-represented in the IT professional workforce. However, given that ‘shortage’ accounts have persisted for many decades (e.g. Smith 2017), and employers have complained about their inability to fill posts in these occupational areas (CBI 2014), it is surprising how few graduates from other STEM areas are employed as engineering or IT professionals.

There is also attrition from STEM occupations over the course of individuals’ careers that is not seen in other fields. A larger proportion of STEM workers move out of highly skilled positions later in their careers. Unlike in other professions, such as education or health, this is not balanced by an intake of more mature recruits; graduates are unlikely to enter STEM positions if they do not do so shortly after graduation. There is also little evidence that STEM graduates enter HS STEM occupations later in their careers.

One reason for this might be that rapid technological changes in the field mean that STEM degrees have a short ‘shelf life’ and the knowledge and skills that are developed become quickly out of date. Another reason for STEM graduates not entering the field later in life might be the need to invest in postgraduate qualifications and the additional financial cost that this incurs, or the terms and conditions of employment, such as more precarious fixed-term work contracts.

Engineering is often the subject area that is selected by employers and policymakers to exemplify the purported STEM skills deficit (e.g. Engineering UK 2016). Engineering stands out among the non-medical STEM subjects as being particularly successful in terms of graduate career destinations: about one third of engineering graduates find work as professional engineers. Yet in the context of assumed shortfalls in the throughput of graduate engineers from schools and universities, and with engineering graduates holding the vast majority of the professional engineering occupations, it is surprising that the engineering sector remains so reliant on engineering graduates rather than recruiting more graduates from related educational backgrounds. Although our data indicate that the career destinations of engineering graduates are favourable, they also show that professional engineering jobs remain largely closed to graduates with degrees in other subjects. This suggests either that these shortage occupational destinations are unattractive to many STEM graduates or that these careers are effectively closed off to them by the recruitment practices of employers.

It could also be the case that there is a ‘natural’ ceiling to recruitment to the pool of engineering graduates and that only a minority of those with engineering degrees want to work in the sector, regardless of the employment offer on offer. Therefore, one way to increase the pool of ‘suitable’ candidates would be to increase the number of those studying for engineering degrees, in the knowledge that only a minority would enter the sector. This seems to be the preference of employers and the main thrust of recent policies (e.g. Cm 8980 2014). However, as our research shows, the differential levels of recruitment suggests either that only certain types of graduate want to enter the engineering labour market or that employers select the majority of their workers from particular social and educational groups. The fact that much lower proportions of engineering graduates from UA/M+ institutions enter the profession compared to those graduating from Russell Group universities might suggest that the latter explanation is more likely.

The most obvious alternative source of potential engineering professions is STEM graduates with non-engineering degrees. Given that the majority of professional engineers either have no degree or a degree in a non-STEM subject, STEM graduates look to be a relatively desirable pool of labour. Given its size, a relatively small increase in the proportion of engineering professionals recruited from this group would result in a substantial increase in the absolute number of STEM workers. It is difficult to believe that maths or physics graduates, for example, do not have knowledge and skills that are transferable to engineering, and they will also have other transferable skills associated with a university education. At present, very few physical and biological science graduates embark on careers in the engineering sector. This may be because they have no desire to enter this area, or because employers would prefer engineering graduates or non-graduates with engineering experience, but if a shortage really exists it would seem strange to ignore the potential for recruitment from this group.

The number of potential workers in any group is an important but often overlooked consideration in discussions of STEM ‘shortages’. And the largest group of potential employees are non-graduates. The proportion of graduates in professional engineering positions, for example, is much lower than that in other non-STEM areas—in the health and legal sectors, for example—where a degree-level qualification has long been mandatory. As the majority of engineering professionals do not have degrees, it is important to question the extent to which an engineering degree—or a degree in any subject—is necessary to work as an engineering professional, or whether it is merely something that is desirable to employers. It is possible that a degree-level qualification is not needed to perform all professional engineering jobs and that many of these roles can be carried out effectively by non-graduates.

Our analyses clearly show that, in the UK, there is no overall shortage of STEM graduates. There may well be a shortage of STEM graduates willing to work in HS STEM roles in some occupational areas, or a shortage of those who employers consider ‘suitable’, but these are different issues. It is certainly the case that many of the indicators that are associated with labour shortages—such as very low levels of unemployment—are not present in these data. There are, however, important differences in the employment outcomes of different groups on STEM graduates. Those studying particular subjects or studying at certain types of institutions are much less likely to ever work in HS STEM positions. At present, there are large sections of the STEM graduate population that are under-represented in the STEM labour force. If employers are really having problems recruiting sufficient numbers of workers, they may have to rethink their ideas about who their potential workforce are, and to what extent it is their responsibility to train their workers.

Footnotes

  1. 1.
    Deciding whether or not a graduate is employed in a HS STEM sector job is problematic and sometimes arbitrary. With this caveat in mind, we have adopted the classification used by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) which uses the criteria of whether an occupation has a high proportion of graduates, a high proportion of STEM-degree holders and a high proportion of STEM-degree holders among graduate entrants. The list below shows the UKCES (2011) classification of HS STEM jobs and the corresponding UK Standard Occupation Classification (SOC) 2000 3-digit occupational codes.

    SOC code

    HS STEM occupations

    112

    Production managers

    121

    Managers in farming, horticulture, forestry and fishing

    211

    Science professionals

    212

    Engineering professionals

    213

    Information and communication technology professionals

    221

    Health professionals

    232

    Research professionals

    242

    Business and statistical professionals

    243

    Architects, town planners, surveyors

    311

    Science and engineering technicians

    312

    Draughtspersons and building inspectors

    313

    IT service delivery occupations

    351

    Transport associate professionals

    353

    Business and finance associate professionals

    355

    Conservation associate professionals

  2. 2.

    The 2000 socio-economic classification scheme was used to code occupational groups in this study. This comprises seven occupational categories of which managerial, professional and associate professional were most of interest in this study. For further detail, see ONS (2000).

  3. 3.

    Undergraduate (bachelor) degrees in the UK are usually three years in length. Students choose their subject before entry to university and degrees are relatively narrow in their field of study and inflexible in terms of the range of subjects that can be taken, especially in comparison to similar programmes in the USA. For example, a student enrolled on a BSc Chemistry degree will study content mainly in this area and the extent to which they will study modules in other subjects (especially beyond the sciences) is limited. Programmes where students study a range of subjects before declaring a ‘Major’ are rare in the UK where specialism happens relatively early in one’s academic career. In addition, programmes such as Medicine and Nursing can be studied at undergraduate, as opposed to graduate, level.

  4. 4.

    Definitions of graduate-level employment are based on the work of Elias and Purcell (2004).

Notes

Funding Information

The research presented in this paper was supported by funding from the Nuffield Foundation.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Research Involving Human Participants and/or Animals

The research uses large-scale secondary datasets. No data was directly collected from human participants.

Informed Consent

Ethical procedures and those governing information consent were followed during the primary data collection phase.

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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Education StudiesUniversity of WarwickCoventryUK
  2. 2.School of Media, Communication and SociologyUniversity of LeicesterLeicesterUK

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