Work experience for STEM students and graduates report

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Exploring the demand and availability of STEM work experience and placements

As part of the follow-up to the Science for Careers Expert Group Action Plan the Science Council commissioned a report into the demand for science and engineering work experience and sandwich year placements.  The Expert Group had discussed the reported concerns from employers and others that graduates lack practical skills and an awareness of the workplace and had a low awareness of the variety of different science and engineering careers.  High quality work placements were considered to be a valuable means both to increase workplace-related skills and to provide an accurate picture of a career in science so that a more informed career decision could be made. 

The report was written by Robin Mellors-Bourne, Careers Research & Advisory Centre (CRAC) and draws on data from several recent studies.  It concludes:

  • For graduate internships, the number of vacancies in STEM industries seems to be much lower than in many other sectors, including finance and business, although the STEM sector seems to be less volatile in terms of the supply of vacancies. 
  • It is easier for a STEM graduate to find an internship in a business-oriented environment than in a scientific or technical one.
  • STEM students are more likely than non-STEM students to undertake a sandwich placement (approximately 14,000-17,500) but not all sandwich study opportunities are taken up.
  • In contrast with other sectors, the majority of internships in IT, engineering and construction are paid – an issue that is very much on the agenda as steps are taken to widen access to the professions.  
  • STEM graduates appear to be less likely than other graduates to pursue internships.
  • While the value of HE work experience and graduate internships is generally positive, more needs to be done to enable employers and potential employees to optimise the relationship, including establishing and embedding good practice.
  • Given the call from employers for graduates with higher levels of practical and technical skills, it is surprising that there are very few genuinely scientific or technical internships for graduates: STEM undergraduates seeking to develop their technical and scientific skills are more likely to be able to find an appropriate work placement as an undergraduate than after graduation.
  • Only a minority of STEM graduates use a series of work experience placements and internships to build a variety of experiences to inform their career choice.
  • Building on the experience of the recent HEFCE evaluations, there could be merit in encouraging a greater variety of work-related experiences from short-term work shadowing through to full internships and placements lasting from three to six or more months.  More variety may also encourage a more diverse range of employers to be involved, including SMEs.
  • Both graduates and employers undertaking internships recognise the gains in terms of generic employability skills such as time management, communications and team-working rather than the technical ‘STEM’ skills.

Please click to download the report’s Summary and Recommendations (pdf 102KB) or the full report (pdf 447KB).

Diana Garnham's blog for the New Scientist on the availability of science internships is available here.