17 July 2017

New report examines social mobility within the chemical engineering profession

Social mobility report 2017

A report published today by the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) Diversity and Inclusion Working Group (DIWG), suggests that work experience is more influential than socio-economic background in relation to employment prospects for chemical engineering students.  

Social mobility and the chemical engineering profession in the UK, presents findings of a survey taken by more than 1,700 IChemE UK members in October 2016. The research looked at the effect of parental occupation, childhood household income and education history on the chemical engineering sector.

The results offer intriguing insights into the socio-economic influences on the career prospects of IChemE members in the UK; including that privately educated respondents did not appear to end up with higher qualifications than respondents who received a state education.

Schooling did not seem to affect the highest qualification achieved by respondents, with 13% of fee-paying school educated and 12% of free secondary school educated members having Doctorate's. The figures were also similar for Bachelor and Master level degrees. Age had a stronger influence, with 21% of respondents in the ‘over 65’ age bracket claiming to have a degree at Master’s level, compared with 76% of those in the ‘25-29 years’ bracket.

However, chemical engineers from families where at least one parent or guardian had attended university, or where the main family breadwinner’s occupation was classified as managerial, senior, or professional occupation, have a possible advantage and are more likely to have a studied for a chemical engineering degree at a top-ranked university.

Sixty-seven percent of the survey respondents aged 25 and under came from families where the main breadwinner was ranked in the higher Office for National Statistics Socio-economic Classification (ONS-SEC) occupation categories. The figure for the UK engineering graduate intake overall is 56%, suggesting a slight socio-economic advantage for chemical engineers over other engineering disciplines.

A key observation of the survey is that the impact of socio-economic factors decreases once chemical engineers reach university, and access to work experience is a more reliable predictor of employment after graduation. Eighty-five percent of respondents who secured one or more work placement opportunities (such as a summer placement, year in industry or internship) whilst at university were employed as a chemical engineer within six months of graduating. This figure fell to 68% for those without work experience, who were also four times more likely to have never secured employment as a chemical engineer.

However, alternative research has shown that work experience opportunities are more accessible to those from higher income families, with more than half of all student work placements found by students or their family members using an existing network of influencers[1]. IChemE has worked with the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF) to tackle this, by supporting it’s One +1 campaign – encouraging members to offer ‘plus 1’ work experience to students without connections.

The DIWG intend to further explore the questions raised by the report, and in 2018 will look at how socio-economic factors affect chemical engineers in the workplace.

IChemE’s President, John McGagh, said:

“Championing diversity and inclusion is a vital part of IChemE’s work to build and support the chemical engineering community. I’m grateful to our members in the Diversity and Inclusion Working Group for contributing to these efforts. Their work raises important questions about how we ensure work placement opportunities are accessible to all chemical engineering students around the world.”

Co-author of the report and member of the DIWG, Wendy Wilson, said:

“We all knew how important it was for students to get work experience prior to graduation, however this study has reinforced this belief as well as showing that work experience helps to minimise the influence of socio-economic factors when seeking employment.”

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IChemE is a registered charity in England & Wales (214379), and a charity registered in Scotland (SC 039661).