Is computer science a passport to a job?
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Is computer science a passport to a job?

Is computer science a passport to a job?

Posted on 18th December 2018

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In my last blog, I noted that there is a commonly held view that computer science graduates have one of the highest, if not the highest, rates of graduate unemployment.

That’s strange, because the ONS (Office for National Statistics) figures for July-September 2017 show (below) that 90% of those graduating with a degree in Maths or Computer Science were in employment, which is higher than most other subjects, although of course this does not necessarily mean they are employed in the tech sector. 

So who is right?  There are certainly a lot of reports that graduate unemployment amongst computer science graduates is higher than for most other disciplines, but the ONS figures deny this.  On this basis, computer science graduates are clearly available as candidates for IT jobs, but we do need to remember their actual numbers are relatively low and also include a not inconsequential number of international students, who will possibly/probably return to their own countries and may then be excluded from the graduate talent pool for UK businesses.

Graduate employment rates

Another possible reason for the lack of suitable candidates is that those who study computer science at university then decide, for whatever reason, that they don’t wish to go on to work in IT.  Be-IT’s own research, as well as other studies, suggests that around 20% to 30% (if not more) of computer science graduates don’t go on to work in their field.  For those who do go on to work in IT, we know that there are simply not sufficient candidates (at all levels) with the necessary skills and experience to fill all the jobs available. The root cause of this growing skills gap is education, from school through to university and workplace training.

Crucially, we need to focus on the numbers coming through the secondary system. This is mainly down to a shortage of applicants with the required skills and experience.  

A gap between school and university 

Only 15,000 UK students sat a computing or ICT A-Level in 2017 –accounting for less than 2pc of the overall exams sat. Although this was a slight year-on-year increase (c. 500) in the number of computing A-Levels taken in 2016, it is totally insufficient for the growing number of jobs being created in the technology sector.

As shown in my first blog there were 27,000 studying computer science at university; far more than the number studying the subject at school (even if we add in those taking Scottish Highers, they would not make up the difference in numbers). In other words, a lot of people are going to university without having studied computer science at secondary school.  Could this be part of the reason that so many don’t go on to work in tech – namely, that they have not got a solid background in the subject and have simply opted for an HE computing course because it seems like a useful degree, but then find it’s not for them?

Problems with students?

I am aware that I’m concentrating, for obvious reasons, on computer science, and there are many other avenues into a career in IT, but we also have to consider some of the other difficulties that computer science graduates have in getting a job.   In the UK, Target Jobs, the leading website for graduate recruitment, tells us that, “Recruiters report that students applying for graduate technology jobs are particular culprits for not taking applications and employability seriously enough …”.   We can also read, in the Scottish Qualifications Authority 2017 Computer Science Higher report,Generally, candidate performance in any question that required a descriptive response or explanation was very poor. Responses tended to be generic, rote-learned facts which candidates did not relate to the question scenario. With some questions, it was clear that candidates did not read the instructions properly before launching into a quick, single-sentence response.”

These are, of course, just two quotations amongst many, but they do seem to back each other up. Students –and this is supported by Be-IT’s new research and anecdotal evidence from our clients who recruit graduates –don’t always know how to present themselves at interview, think the world owes them a living and/or believe they should be promoted much more quickly than their employers do.  In the response to Be-IT’s own study, 25% of graduates told us they found it difficult to get a job.  Of course, we would need to investigate this further to prove a causal link between lack of real world skills and lack of employment, but it does seem a plausible inference that there is a connection.

However, there is yet another problem. As noted above, many of those who study computer science at university haven’t studied it specifically at school, but probably studied other relevant subjects such as Maths or Physics. Many will go on to what seems like a ‘vocational’ computer science degree course, but others will take a different route.  This may result in their qualifying with an unsuitable degree for industry.  According to Be-IT’s survey of graduate employers, the second “worst” attribute/problem that comes with graduates (cited by 65%) is that their degrees are not relevant.

It does seem that there is a multitude of complex, interacting issues that conspire to create the skills gap we see on a daily basis in our work at Be-IT. Schools don’t have enough qualified teachers, universities and schools don’t prepare graduates well enough for the business of getting a job, degrees aren’t always relevant, people study for IT-related degrees because they think it is a good idea, but then find the reality doesn’t match their initial hopes, and, finally, and I think possibly most importantly, we, as a nation/society, seem to regard IT as a “hard” subject that only geeky/brainy people can do, rather than creating a climate where it is celebrated and promoted.  And of course, one of the problems is that we don’t have enough girls studying STEM subjects at school and then continuing their studies at university.  That will be the subject of next week’sblog.

Nikola Kelly, MD, Be-IT


Posted in Opinion, Recruitment News, STEM

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