IOP Institute of Physics

For physics • For physicists • For all


Members can try our new IOP Career Development Hub

visit the new Hub

Unemployed and STEM

Despite widely reported skills shortages in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, some graduates in these disciplines are finding the job hunt anything but easy. Penny Jackson shares her experiences.

Unemployed and STEM
Credit: iStock/EdStock

I completed my undergraduate studies in physics at the University of Bristol in 2008, at the height of the recession. At the time, the number of graduates far exceeded the number of available jobs, and I and most of my classmates struggled to find suitable roles – or indeed any roles at all. Consequently, many graduates were forced into unemployment or non-graduate jobs.

For a while, I managed to delay the problem by pursuing further study, earning a Master's degree in particle accelerator physics. But by 2011 I was on the job market again, and my experiences should give pause to the many people and organizations who insist that the UK has a shortage of people with qualifications in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

After applying for around 100 jobs, I got a grand total of one offer: a graduate physicist role that I found on brightrecruits.com (the job site of the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World). This makes me one of the luckier ones. Some of my friends who got physics PhDs found that their chances of finding a postdoctoral position in the UK are vanishingly low; in any other field, specifying the country where you wish to work is not considered overly fussy, but in academic physics, it apparently is. Other friends are long-term unemployed. This is not the sign of a shortage of candidates. It is the sign of an enormous surplus at this level.

Worse than useless 
During the three months when I was unemployed, my local branch of the Jobcentre (the UK government agency for people looking for work) was worse than useless. I claimed unemployment benefits (known as Jobseeker's Allowance, or JSA) for only a short period, but in that time, the Jobcentre seemingly did all it could to keep me from getting a STEM-related job. I was forced to "agree" to claim, on official forms, that I was mainly looking for jobs in areas such as care, retail and administrative work (I suspect gender stereotyping had some effect there), even though none of these areas interested me, and none of these employers were interested in an overqualified applicant.

My Jobcentre adviser also tried to convince me that there were no STEM graduate jobs within commuting distance of my parents' house in Derby, where I was living at the time. To make matters worse, she thought that anything not in commuting distance of my parents' house didn't count, so she did nothing to support my willingness to relocate. Throughout my dealings with the Jobcentre, I was repeatedly told to keep my expectations "realistic", with a heavy implication that despite having an MSc in physics, looking for a job in anything other than unskilled labour was completely ludicrous.

My bad experiences with the Jobcentre were not universal, but they were also not unique. Several other STEM-qualified people I know were also pushed to take a job – any job – with no regard to keeping their STEM skills in the economy. A few reported that they were told to quit useful courses in order to take up less relevant training. In one case, a friend of a friend with a meteorology degree was told to go on a flower-arranging course to make them more employable! Those who reported more positive experiences included one person who had previously worked as a mathematics teacher, so I suspect they go easier on people who are not new graduates. One new science graduate also told me that his Jobcentre adviser admitted they hadn't got a clue and let him get on with his job search however he saw fit.

My overall impression is that the Jobcentre just wants people off JSA as soon as possible, and has little or no interest in making sure that people with specialist skills (particularly new graduates) are actually making use of them. This is a problem, because people who do get pushed into unskilled jobs – either by their Jobcentre adviser or simply by having all the confidence and ambition knocked out of them – are often lost from the STEM pool entirely. This has happened to an acquaintance of mine; despite being a qualified science teacher, she became stuck in a retail job she hated.

Putting up barriers 
Even without unhelpful "support", finding the right role is difficult. Part of the problem stems from a lack of appropriate job advertising. In my experience, too many employers fail to advertise specialist jobs in sensible places, while others seem to regard all degrees as identical, advertising generic graduate schemes that ignore the intense specialization that takes place in the final year of an undergraduate degree. This hurts new graduates who have gained skills and experience through their coursework, but who may lack experience of the professional world.

For example, I have some experience in practical radio astronomy, and a few people have commented that this would be very useful to someone. Unfortunately, I have never seen a vacancy asking for it, despite looking very hard. I was also interested in radiation health physics (another area where I have some relevant experience), but I could only find adverts for senior managers and technicians. I would have loved to work my way up from technician, but not one of those employers ever got back to me, even though this is one of the areas identified as having a notable shortage of skilled workers.

Why are jobs and candidates so hard to match up? One reason may be that during the recession, employers got used to asking for (and getting) "ideal" candidates. Now that unemployment is going down, those ideal candidates can afford to be choosier, but employers haven't yet adapted their expectations. What this means for "suitable" (but not "ideal") candidates is that there seems to be no reason too petty, irrelevant or discriminatory not to hire someone.

A common problem I saw is that employers seem to want interviewees to ramble about how much they love teamwork, even when the role they're applying for is largely solo. Some more progressive employers are starting to realize that such criteria discriminate against people with autism and Asperger's, conditions that are more prevalent among STEM graduates and professionals (and can sometimes offer significant benefits for those fields). Even so, not enough places are willing to consider these "non-ideal" applicants.

Other factors can also make applicants appear "non-ideal". If you have any breaks in your career, it seems you are not wanted. If you graduated in the wrong year when there were no jobs, and had to spend years on the dole or working in retail, that is somehow your fault. Women who took career breaks for maternity leave are finally starting to be recognized as useful in some cases, but there is a huge pool of people who have been out of STEM for other reasons who are being ignored. When the pipeline leaks, not enough is being done to rescue the high-quality "leakage".

A final problem is that most employers expect someone else to do the initial training required to prepare someone for a job. But while it seems right to expect a university to train someone to work in a university, it is not the role of a university to train someone to work in, say, a bank. It is the role of a bank. If an employer cannot find people who already have the right vocational training and experience, then that is nobody's fault but the employer's. If you need someone with five years' experience, why not start training them yourself five years in advance?

My experiences have led me to believe that there is no STEM graduate shortage. The real shortages are sensible expectations, willingness to take some responsibility for training people and decent advertising of roles. There is a huge surplus of available and talented STEM graduates, recent and long ago, waiting for these things to change.

Penny Jackson is employed as a physicist and is working towards chartered physicist status, email fridalongstockin@gmail.com. This article was written in response to "The STEM shortage paradox" (October 2014 pp56–59)