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Do we need a golden hello?

The IES Annual Graduate Review 1998-99 gives valuable hints to all engineers in their twenties. The Institute for Employment Studies reports that many recruiters cannot attract the graduates they want to meet their business needs. It is particularly acute in civil engineering, according to Nick Jagger, an IES research fellow.

Skill levels of fresh graduates are reported to be largely satisfactory, but firms complain of a lack of 'business awareness'. Is this another example of companies - and even universities - treating degree courses as training grounds rather than opportunities for learning? The detailed findings are more illuminating.

IES is independent and funded by Government and larger employers like BAA. It argues that the purpose of higher education is not simply to prepare students for working life. But there is 'a responsibility to ensure that the potential employment consequences are built into the thinking about course provision and careers guidance'.

Today's sensible students do estimate likely debts after three or four years of study and guess what they might earn. This should lead to informed choices. The biggest factor muddying the equation is any imbalance between supply and demand when the first job comes. This summer, plenty of mid- career engineers are likely to be looking for jobs.

Taking all new graduates last year, income levels were typically £12,584 for women and £14,768 for men, according to the National Labour Force Survey. Figures from the Association of Graduate Recruiters are more relevant for engineers. AGR represents larger firms which recruit 30,000 graduates each year, a fifth of all available.

Median starting salaries for 1998 rose to £16,500 per annum, up 4.4 per cent on the year before. Although starting pay might appear to have jumped in recent times, the increases have simply tracked changes in median earnings for the whole workforce over the last 10 years.

Going back to all graduates, typical earnings for those who graduated three years ago are still £16-17,000 - on a par with salaries for new starters in the larger companies.

AGR's average £16,500 starter salary hides a wide range, with a few firms offering less than £13,000 and rather more offering more than £20,000. Care must be taken with comparisons because central London jobs pay on average £3,000 more than those outside the capital.

How are salaries likely to progress? Major recruiters say median salaries in 1997 for graduates recruited one and three years earlier had risen by ten and 29 per cent respectively to £17,000 and £21,000. The range of salaries paid three years after recruitment was much wider, with an upper decile at £31,000 and lower decile of £16,500.

There are no reliable figures yet on debt levels, but IES believes that a student who has not worked or received parental or other financial support is likely to graduate with debts of up to £5,000. The National Union of Students puts the figure higher. For a three-year course outside London it reckons debts could be more than £7,000.

What is certain is that the abolition of maintenance grant and the introduction of means tested fees and loans mean the cost of getting a degree will rise further.

If civil engineering firms are truly finding difficulty in getting who they want, logic dictates some might offer higher salaries or other inducements. There is no evidence of that, but some say they prefer a shortfall to dropping standards.

Either the major employers have held the line with an agreed level of offers, or they have sought to meet needs from existing staff and recruitment at other levels.

The golden hello has yet to catch on in civil engineering, but for those graduates with 'business awareness', it won't be long coming. That will help everyone.

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