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Do engineering degrees die if they are not used?
Arran Cameron
415 Posts
I was recently contacted by a 32 year old with a degree in electrical and electronic engineering. He graduated in 2009 with a 2.1 from a reasonably good university, but he has never managed to succeed in an interview for a 'proper' engineering job. He previously had two fairly basic ICT jobs but nothing more technical than that and he currently works for a small company as a carpenter specialising in wooden floors.

After graduating he returned home to his family and joined UKIP, mostly for the social side rather than hardcore politics. It was through personal connections in UKIP that he found the job as a carpenter. He also found his wife through UKIP but both people have since left the party and are no longer active in politics.

He has attended a reasonable number of interviews for engineering positions in the first 5 years since graduation but companies seemed to show less interest in him after that. He is concerned that his engineering degree has effectively died through a lack of an opportunity to use it. He also asked me if 'refresher' courses are available, and I told him that he could do an MSc but I'm not sure if it will benefit him because employers really want work experience in engineering rather than higher academic qualifications.

Things he doesn't want to do are:

1. An electrician. Building electricians really are a different breed from electrical engineers. Most of the work that electricians do (new builds and some commercial buildings being an exception) is building work rather than electrical work and it's harder labour cutting holes in diamond-hard bricks; working in cramped and dusty attics; and pulling cables through tight conduits than it is working on wooden flooring. If he really wanted to become an electrician then he wouldn't have bothered with A Levels and a degree.

2. Financial services. Some people argue that he has a mathematical degree so he can go and work in some investment bank in the City. It's a totally different mindset from engineering - and the ICT and carpentry work that he has done - and even the maths required is of a different type. He also doesn't want to work in central London. He said that he wouldn't mind being an economist but as he hasn't formally studied economics he would have to study another degree. He looked at becoming an actuary but the learning curve is steep; jobs aren't easy to come by; and insurance companies might not want to employ a 'failed' electrical engineer in his 30s over one of countless mathematics graduates with a 1st class degree in their 20s. Accountancy is oversubscribed and it's possible that software will replace many accountants in the future.

3. Teaching. He looked into becoming a computer science teacher but teaching in schools is stressful and demoralising. Despite shortages of 'good' computer science teachers it isn't always easy to get a job teaching this subject due to budget constraints in schools and teaching unions protecting the jobs of, now obsolescent, former ICT teachers who know less about computer science than the kids they teach.

Does anybody have anything to say about this?
11 Replies
Moshe W
506 Posts
In my view, there is no such thing as Engineering degrees die. What is a degree?  a degree is an award given based on completion of specific requirements.  It has no expiration date.
Some say that degrees get obsolete but in my view, it's not really the case.
Due to rapid developments and advances in engineering and technology updating knowledge is a must and a life long process.  
Education, training to remain current, can be in a form of on-demand certifications, IET, IEEE courses, etc.
Look at "Skillset", education is a part of it, just like a professional who has a toolbox, so an MSc degree at some point would be a plus and it's not going to replace work experience but update and provide more advanced up to date knowledge. I don't know the person you are talking about but the attitude is very important, and at the start of the career flexibility can be of value.
What does a job applicant bring to the table? Some times industry knowledge, I know college grad who couldn't get a job in ICT straight out of college so he became an entry-level insurance worker who worked for a large insurance company.
The industry knowledge and his college education that he acquired helped him down the road to land a Business Systems analyst job with a major insurance company.  But he had to be flexible so while he didn't want to commute to downtown Los Angeles he wanted a better job so he took it and "suffered the LA traffic" :-) but the career took off and he never regretted it.  Now he is in the position to offer higher value to the hiring managers and look for opportunities closer to his home be it internal or external to his current employer. 

I think that hiring managers are looking for experienced, motivated team players who can come up to speed fast.
So there are expected reservations in hiring entry-level employees. Internships and apprenticeships are a good way to get one's foot into Engineering and Technology jobs.
It has to be a combination of education, skills, etc so fill the toolbox so to say.

2355 Posts

He graduated in 2009 with a 2.1 from a reasonably good university, but he has never managed to succeed in an interview for a 'proper' engineering job.

Did the rest of his cohort ?
The degree may not 'expire' assuming he can still design stuff, and has not forgotten the theory, but I can well imagine his employability falls over time unless he does things to keep up to date.
Consider that in the UK at least there has not been a shortage of jobs in EE in the last 5 years, quite the reverse, so any potential employer is going to ask what has he been up to in the last 5 years that makes him so unemployable, which needs to be bounced back to be why they should take him now is...  Can he answer that question ?  Do not waste any more time going to an interviews until that one is nailed and there is a solid answer for it. It may sound harsh, but you, or really he need(s) to stand back and see it with the potential employer's goggles on.

Almost never does a hassled project manager say ' this project is failing fast, I know what we need, get me an inexperienced graduate'.  It is about as useful as 'let me through I'm a poet' at the scene of a car crash.

Where I work we get a fair number of graduate applications in most years and we see a good number of CVs from folk at various stages in their career.
So what folk get the jobs ? Well, the ones whose names and skills you can remember by 5 o'clock after interviewing half a dozen candidates from 10AM onwards, that's who.
Normally we find out what someone of that age might be good at by asking about the last few projects they were on, or their previous employer. Here this may not be relevant.
So, has be been doing any electronics at home for fun recently that he can talk about to show willing? Is he any good at fault finding, done any web design, evidence of interest and self motivation.
Is he clear what he wants to do, e.g. does he want to do technical sales, and travel the county/country/ world looking at other folks problems and seeing how they may be solved ?
perhaps he is he more of a bench creature, and fancies setting up benches of test gear to verify performance of some vital parts.
Is he able to remember how to  design ? - it is amazing how many folk cock  up the simple 'calculate the bias resistors for this NPN transistor circuit?'  'or what frequency is the antenna in this photo working at ? '  even op amps and RC time constant type questions that really ought to be a formality in interview. I do sometimes ask myself of some less successful candidates what sort of technical questions were they expecting.
Fresh graduates with no previous employer grade un officially into sheep and goats. Sheep have followed with the main herd and have completed the  course with no great deviations or initiative, though they may still be 1st class honours. Goats have done their own thing, tried stuff and may be either about to invent the next big win, or to burn the lab down, sometimes both on the same day,  and may have odd hobbies like mountain climbing or scuba diving.
QA, factory test and to some extent repairs, need the reliable follow the rule book sheep type.  Brainstorms for new designs,  fixes for previously unseen faults and anything really blue sky, needs a few goats, but not too many on the same job.
He needs to know before he applies if he is the right type.
Are there other limitations - is he tied geographically -  for work in some more niche subjects,  you need be able to go where the work is, and if need be, be ready to learn another language to do it, or less dramatically to commute at the weekend, and lodge for the week near the job.
Your  colleague needs also to be able to present himself, naturally, as to act is very dangerous, but to get his aims ambitions competences and generally what he likes to do,  as well as any limitations or caveats, out of his head and into that of the interviewer, with minimal pain to either, so some practice at presentation technique is useful.

So much waffle .

To the exam question,  Do engineering degrees die if they are not used ?
Only if the holder is not keeping their hand in the game.

85 Posts
Well, if you don't use them you will loose them.  The job that is!!   The formal interview is just an introduction by the company to its history and importance to society.  But at the end you will always be asked  " Well, have you any questions?"
Now that is the start of the real interview.  To say, Oh that seems all OK; to the HR person is totally unacceptable. 
 You read up on the company objectives in advance and have seen their financial reports, you did read the technical director and chairman's statements on what they see as their future goals are; haven't you????????????
So check these interviewers out do they know what their company goals are? how can you help them achieve those goals? Have they a research and development engineer department that could help you if you are given the job or would you be expected to work alone?  Who will be assisting you if you encounter a problem? You are keen as mustard to join them. Possibly you could go overseas if that were necessary? Do they pay reasonable expenses?
Andy Millar
1784 Posts
In addition to the above excellent advice, as a general point members should be aware of the Employment Support offered by IET Connect available to all those out of work:

Long term unemployment is a situation that hugely benefits from confidential 1-2-1 support, as the reasons tend to be very specific to the person involved (and, let's be honest, can often involve hard truths that need to be handled sensitively). I can't personally vouch for the IET Connect support having not tried it myself, but since it's free to members it has to be worth a try for anyone who finds themselves in this or a similar position. 


Roy Bowdler
847 Posts
We probably have separate the simple facts here from the mythology and hype. Someone met a standard at a point in time and as a result has a certificate and may use post-nominals without any limit of time. Should someone wish to, they can understand what was studied, when and how relevant that is to whatever they are trying to evaluate.  For the overwhelming majority of engineering bachelors degree holders, they have done well in mathematics and science subjects by the age of 18 and continue in full-time education to the age of 21-22 , being sufficiently capable and diligent to graduate.  There is a much smaller group who came later to a similar syllabus as part of their career development.  

The design of undergraduate engineering degrees, intends to prepare someone who is already well-rehearsed in mathematical and scientific theory for training as an engineer. Some types of engineer’s career pathways are relatively restricted in scope and predictable, but there is an enormous variety of possibilities , including deploying some of the attributes that have been learned in a different type of career.  I would expect an  experienced practitioner with at least a good grasp of maths and science basics , to be better served by a Masters programme.  This allows them to develop post-graduate attributes based around their existing expertise, rather than “jumping exam hoops” which is what teenagers do.

Much of the “noise” around degrees is about people’s perceptions and expectations, which are often sociologically determined. So we are impressed by the “brand” which someone is associated with , such as Oxbridge or even our favourite technical university. “Badge snobbery” is an overriding factor in this respect , which might have some basis in real performance, but not an entirely reliable one.  So in another effort to differentiate we have grading, which also can’t be relied upon and in the case of Engineering Degrees, accreditation by a professional institution. The idea of a form of peer review of academic programmes organised by a professional body (accreditation) has merits, over and above the normal quality assurance processes for universities, such as external examiners and QAA.  However, I also feel that it has rather lost its way and needs reforming.

I won’t go into detail, although I have done so previously in these forums, but it seems that some blue chip employers are quite happy to simply “cherry pick” the highest achieving fraction of graduates on the basis of potential, being able to offer various training and career pathways to graduate trainees.  Some employers are less academically selective and perhaps see their graduate intakes as just the “normal” pathway to becoming an engineer, which in the past might have been an HNC type apprenticeship.  Many employers without an established tradition of graduate training, expect a graduate engineer to arrive “ready trained” and capable of doing a serious job after a short familiarisation period.  Quite a few of them are sorely disappointed to find only textbook knowledge.  Sadly, many graduates simply cannot find employment that meets their situation. To lose impetus at such an early stage of a career can be demoralising and difficult to recover from.  Young people (not just prospective engineers) are sold a return on investment or graduate premium, that doesn’t always materialise.

The reform, that I referred to is to focus on what employed engineers do, not on what is most academically prestigious or appropriate for research and academic careers, which are relatively small in number and not always particularly lucrative.  Proficiency in mathematics such as calculus based science, is used to attempt to discriminate between the “best and the rest”, with the often more useful practical applications of engineering, treated as second class activities suitable only for the “lower ranks” of this hierarchy. This isn’t just a UK problem, since the (academic) Washington Accord is influential.  Simply put, any university wanting to emphasise “applications” in their degree course risks what has become the stigma of “inferior” IEng accreditation. What university under the current fees regime would want to sell an “inferior” degree, even if QAA says that it is equally valuable, unless they have strong employer support?  We should stretch the brightest minds, but in our desire to enhance the status of the most academic prospective engineers, we have set about equipping quite a few of them with knowledge that they probably won’t use, rather than skills which they probably can.   

My dear Roy, 
I don't agree with you so much. 
I will explain quite simply: In my field as an independent and court-appointed expert, I must be sharp and precise. Physics and Charts That a person in an engineer's hat must be precise and clear.I know that all bachelor's academic studies are necessary and must be known besides the experience no less important.
Moshe W
506 Posts
The value of the degree is a combination of the issuing institution and the graduate. 
Each country has its standards for engineers' formation. Some are very strict (including an accredited degree) others strict but inclusive of multiple paths to engineers formation. Engineers' jobs also have a wide range and requirements are diverse.
Not only the field of engineering be it civil, aeronautical, mechanical, electrical, water, building, telecom, etc followed by the role/roles of the engineer such as manufacturing, management, design, field, QA and many many more.

The competition is serious one should be competitive and basically provide the hiring employers what they want and convince the hiring employer why the candidate is the best or one of the best matches for the job.
Becoming a member of IET or one of the Engineering institutions can provide networking, training, professional registration, and recognition and the required edge, job boards and more. 
One of my jobs that had a major step in my career came via a job board of the IEEE at the time. 

I would recommend looking for an internship/apprenticeship for entry-level Engineering / ICT jobs with a combination of training that can enhance the skill set of the engineer if the area that is high demand or nitch with higher demand that supply.

I think there are two separate threads to this discussion.
First - Do engineering degrees die if they are not used? To which the answer seems to be no, they are with you until you die (or possibly beyond, if the post-nominal are engraved on your headstone). The degree award is for life.
Second - Does the value of an engineering degree diminish if it is not used? Here we are on less firm ground as the feeling seems to be that if you don't use it you will regress. How much and how quickly is open to debate which I am not going to get involved in except to say it will be different for different people.
The issue for the individual concerned is actually the second one rather than the first one (the question posed), as employers are looking for value in the investment they are making in a new employee. If he can compensate for the diminished value of the degree in other ways (e.g. enthusiasm and commitment) then that may help convince an employer, but I suspect that another option may be to do a job which he currently doesn't want (not necessarily the ones listed) for a short period might move him towards a job that is more suitable. Also don't forget that graduate training programmes are also open to older graduates if he doesn't mind starting at the bottom of the salary ladder.
Andy Millar
1784 Posts

I would just add another point to that, that it is perhaps less an employer's view that the knowledge has faded through lack of use, and more a concern that "if no-one else has wanted to employ this person in this amount of time there must be a problem - so we'd better not take a risk on that".

But in either case I totally agree that the solution is the same: demonstrating as a candidate that you will add more value than any of the other candidates - basically demonstrating that you are not a risk. And absolutely take any route in you can; it's much easier to prove value from the inside of the organisation (if you can create a good track record) than from outside.



Lee Nelson
32 Posts

Also don't forget that graduate training programmes are also open to older graduates if he doesn't mind starting at the bottom of the salary ladder.

I think this is a good idea as it would demonstrate a wish to make a new start and he would at least have a route to get up the salary ladder. He may stand out from the other graduates by having a different route and more 'life' experience.


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