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Calvin Asks: Is there space for a mature student in engineering?
After moving countries I took the "any job to pay the bills route".

I was previously a recording engineer and once arriving in the UK I took a bar job. This bar job evolved to me being promoted to restaurant manager, earning a very comfortable salary. But I hated the job. Long hours that would often go into the night were not my long term plan.

When I was offered the position of general manager I had a decision to make. I knew that if I accepted it I would probably stay for the money. So I decided to quit, enrolled in college and then in a EEE course at university.

By the time I graduate with a masters I will be 40 years old and I fear that I might be rejected by most companies due to my age. I also fear that I'm at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to being chosen as my grades aren't excellent (although I believe I will graduate with a 2:1) I have very little outside projects under my belt (as time is a little limited when you have to support yourself and have time to spend with family) and I didn't manage to secure a summer placement in 3rd year.

Is there a place for me in the industry?

Sound man - Sheffield
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6 Replies
It is difficult to know how to answer this. The country is suffering from a lack of engineers, so on that basis there is a place for you in industry. It is now illegal to discriminate on the basis of age so interviewers will generally not bring up the question of 'how old are you' in order to avoid the possibility of a challenge. They can't even discriminate on age for entry onto a Graduate Training Scheme. However proving discrimination would be a much harder issue. Not being selected could be for other reasons.
The only thing I can really advise is don't be discouraged, get practiced at filling out application forms, and talk to your university career advisers early (which will certainly make you stand out from the crowd). This way you can get a head start on most of your fellow students.
With a more mature outlook you will have advantages over other graduates who have not developed the same life skills, so try to make these advantages count.
Andy Millar
1725 Posts
So your question is - is there a space in the engineering industry for a 40 year old experienced manager, used to coping with difficult clients in high stress environments, and with up-to-date technical education? Good grief yes there is!! Customer focused engineers with management experience are like gold dust.

BUT you will almost certainly find that big companies don't want to take a risk on you just yet. (Don't let that stop you applying to them, and keep positive during your applications, but be prepared.) So find the small companies. You may well find that your way in is through project management or customer technical support - doesn't mean you have to do those roles forever, for the moment it's finding a way in. 

You might want to look at food processing technology companies (bigger business than you might think it is). Or, of course, audio / visual equipment companies are flexible in the way they take on staff from interesting backgrounds - but that is a very competitive field. In either of those you have the selling point of knowledge of the target customers.

I jumped from the recording studio industry to the railway signalling industry in my 30s - took a little while to get back up to the same level but not a ridiculously long time. The key was finding a small company (actually a small division of a big company) willing to take a risk on me.


Andy Millar
1725 Posts
As usual Alasdair and I posted simultaneously 😊 (More of a coincidence than usual as I don't visit these forums very often these days)

What I would add to Alasdair's post, in line with mine, is don't think of yourself as a graduate engineer - think of yourself as an experienced manager / team leader / problem solver with an engineering degree. Then you've got more chance of competing like-for-like with other candidates.


As usual Andy and I seem to be thinking along similar lines. I thought of suggesting smaller companies but didn't want to discourage you from applying to larger ones.
Regarding Andy's follow up comment, he is absolutely right. I would only add that you could also be applying for lower grade jobs and make it clear that you have aspirations to move up and make use of your management experience. However the one thing to think about is 'do you want to be a manager?' You gave up on the restaurant manager/general manager career so if you are going to apply for managerial roles or roles that may lead to management, be sure it is what you want. Engineering management is not the exactly the same as restaurant management but there are definitely overlaps.
Best wishes,
Roy Bowdler
825 Posts
Alasdair & Andy have covered much of the ground and both have a long record of excellent contributions here.  I spotted this thread, but since the merging of different forums, questions around a broader range of engineering careers and professional registration have become obscured by the volume of Electrician’s topics. I don’t find that objectionable, but I can’t offer the same level of current expertise and technical understanding being illustrated by some others (Mike mapj1, always impresses me for example). Nevertheless Engineering Council and those within the IET who think that it is doing a good job in protecting their interests, will be quietly pleased, as will anyone who understandably finds “politics” disagreeable. I understand such feelings, but IET members have a very broad range of interests, especially career development and professional recognition.  

My first reaction is that Calvin has been mis-sold to or at least misled.

I’m interpreting the question to suggest that he enrolled on a four year MEng course, although that isn’t clear and it may be three year BEng? The question is ambiguous by referring to “a masters” and a “2:1”, which are incompatible (I think?). The direct cost of tuition fees is therefore in the range of 30-40K.  In return he is likely to have pursued a syllabus aimed at 18 year olds with good grades in mathematics and science. Such courses are designed to offer a theoretical preparation for a career and ideally also some practical capability, potentially enough to become useful and productive as a graduate trainee engineer (or another career pathway) relatively quickly.  They are not a vocational training programme which equips someone to work in a specific role. It is possible that his university tutors have recognised his career situation and customised his experience, but if they haven’t then he is just a student with the disadvantage of not being in the “flow” of education post-A levels.

I was at one time involved in this initiative  http://www.engineeringgateways.co.uk/  which was designed to allow working engineers to express their academic ability to masters level, through the medium of their own work experience.  The underlying assumption was that a participant already had a good level of engineering capability, illustrating broadly bachelors level ability (which is most “engineers” with HNC type qualifications or beyond). It also didn’t provide specific vocational training, but it did equip participants to develop themselves towards Chartered Standard.  

I actually think that it is a great idea for people to engage with an academic experience (such as a part-time masters) in mid-career, but higher education is primarily set up and incentivised to offer three and four year full-time campus based degrees to those between the ages of approximately 18 and 22.

I anticipate that someone will post of their positive experience of going to university as a “mature student” after completing an apprenticeship or following a career “false start”.  Obviously this is a possibility, but unless someone can work “on the side” the costs and return on investment especially under the current fees regime is difficult to justify.  I would not have advised Calvin to become a mature full-time student for that reason, although there may be other factors in play and obviously there will be some benefit from gaining the degree.

Looking forward, yes there is room in engineering for anyone with enthusiasm and ability.

Blue-chip company graduate training schemes intentionally recruit developing talent straight out of university. They won’t reject someone purely on age grounds, but would mostly argue, that their approach is “objectively justified” (i.e. legal), because someone older can apply for a substantive job instead.  So on the whole a “mature student” will be outcompeted by high performing younger ones with more “potential”. As Andy highlighted a smaller business may be much more flexible, but usually can’t afford to carry someone paid beyond their level of productivity for long.  An academic career is also a possibility.

It is an over-simplification, but employers generally may view a degree as indicative of potential and recruiters often rather lazily use holding a degree as a filter to reject potential candidates, although more thoughtful ones often use a phrase like “or equivalent experience”.  For anyone with a track record, employers have to evaluate how readily the skills and attributes of a candidate can be adapted to add value to their business model. The lowest risk answer is of course 100% match , where someone is transferring from a similar job where they are already well-proven. 

Calvin, you have to ask yourself what type of role would best align with your motivation, personality and talents. There is little value in desperately jumping into a role that you don’t enjoy. As an unproven quantity you are asking an employer to take a risk on you, but there are roles where a mature individual can quickly become productive on the basis of interpersonal and management skills. If you have some design capability then a “junior” engineers job in that environment may be possible. Carefully target potential employers that might be more amenable to someone like you, including building the trust of a decision maker if possible. Many SME principal’s are less risk averse than larger companies if they see a “hunger” in you.  Good luck!    

Yes, there is always a space for a mature student or graduate in engineering. I am nearly 40 years and currently on a graduate scheme with a reputable company in the UK I will say number 1 in Europe. After serving in the British Army for some years I decided a change of career. This decision won't be easy because you may end up training with guys half your age but with determination, you can adjust yourself and just focus towards your goals. 


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