Pay for the skills you want

September 25, 2014

I have the greatest respect for my colleague Dame Ann Dowling, but I wonder if industry is being entirely straight with her when it claims to need double the current number of graduate engineers (“Seeing great ideas through to the finish line”, News, 28 August). If there were a true shortage, then I would expect to see individual companies advertising enthusiastically and competing to pay higher salaries. Neither of these appears to be the case.

For some years I have monitored the salaries offered to graduate scientists by STEM-sector employers, as appears in the rather sparse recruitment pages of New Scientist, Physics World and similar. They are currently about £24K a year, which compares to that of a National Express coach driver – but the non-graduate coach driver gets additional overtime, starts earning four years earlier, and pays about 75 per cent of the marginal tax rate once student loan repayments are taken into account.

Perhaps it’s too cynical to accuse industry of talking up surplus production in order to keep salaries down. More likely, employers have not asked themselves why they have difficulty recruiting. I suspect that what industry means is not that we need to produce twice as many graduates, but that they need twice the number who (a) have the right skills, (b) don’t want a PhD and (c) are prepared to forgo substantially higher salaries in finance and consulting. If so, then “Physician, heal thyself”. Some clarity on what they are looking for would be good, and competitive starting salaries may well be a more efficacious prescription than expanding courses.

Rachael Padman
Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge

In the feature “Please sir, can I have some more?” (18 September), you report Alan Milburn noting that postgraduate qualifications are an increasingly important part of professional jobs in UK industry. Indeed.
So when it comes to funding study for them, why not levy a tax on employers who take on the well-qualified and, no doubt, benefit very considerably from doing so?

Keith Flett

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