Whether you are talking about how much you earn or how much you owe, the topic of money always seems to stir fierce debate.
It is a subject that everyone has an opinion on.
And unless you are volunteering your time freely, the amount you are paid is always a factor – regardless of your chosen profession.
Chemical engineering companies, and engineering companies in general, pay their graduates well.
For example, The Times Good University Guide 2015 found that chemical engineering graduates earned £29,582 per year on average, second in the overall graduate salary list behind dentistry (£30,395).
Indeed, the Times’ survey found that six of the top 10 highest paid graduate starting salaries are engineering disciplines, with civil engineering being the ‘lowest’ paid in the top 10 at £24,524 per year.
Whichever way you cut it, those numbers are not be sniffed at.
So why is there still a skills shortage?
“We know there is a great offering of talent out there, which is linked to great salaries, but we have to do a lot to raise the profile, imagery and awareness of what engineering is and what engineers do
IET chief executive Nigel Fine
Nigel Fine, chief executive of industry body the Institution of Engineering and Technology, says that part of the problem is perception.
“There are too many people who do not know what engineering is about and what engineers actually do,” Fine says.
Fine says that one of the main salaries skills challenges faced by the engineering sector is being able to effectively relay the message that a career in engineering offers a wealth of opportunities and incentives that actually take place in very modern environments, as opposed to grubby ones.
“We know there is a great offering of talent out there, which is linked to great salaries, but we have to do a lot to raise the profile, imagery and awareness of what engineering is and what engineers do,” Fine says.
Another issue that can affect the engineering sector is workforce complacency, Fine says.
“There is always the risk that people will think about branching away from engineering and move into other business activities,” Fine says, though he does suggest in some instances it may not be a bad thing.
“Those who start off in engineering and spend a good few years post-qualifying [within the industry], are more than suitably qualified to run a whole host of different activities,” Fine says.
“Many go on to run some of our biggest companies because they are numerate, they are good at problem solving, they have the soft skills of team-forming, and engineers are all about making improvements,” he says.
While Fine is quick to point out that he would rather engineering graduates stay within the boundaries of engineering, he says that if they choose not to, they would possess the skills to serve society in a vast number of ways.
And although rates of transition into other industries are low, it is not unheard of.
Chisom Orji, who studied chemical engineering, economics and management at Oxford University, and who is currently employed as an investment banking analyst, made the move into finance after completing her degree.
“The finance sector is pretty clear-cut in terms of the routes you would take,” says Orji.
“I did a summer internship with my current employer and that heavily affected my decision [to move away for engineering].”
Although Orji admits salary was a factor, she is clear that money was not the sole motivator for her move into banking.
“I think engineering companies tend to lack an on-campus presence,” says Orji.
“The banks and finance companies are always at careers events at universities.”
Orji says that chemical engineering companies do not offer the same level of visibility in terms of career potential and that when developing her career path, there could have been a certain amount of stagnation quite early on had she pursued chemical engineering.
“The finance sector is pretty clear-cut in terms of the routes you would take
Banking analyst Chisom Orji
“From the chemical engineers that I had met it seemed that you could end up staying in a role for a particular number of years,” she says.
“There wasn’t an ‘up and out’ structure in terms of progression. There was a sense that you could be good at your job but that you could plateau quite early on in your career.”
Institution of Chemical Engineering (IChemE) director of policy Andy Furlong disagrees.
He says engineering graduates are offered some of the best career pathways and monetary incentives of any profession.
“If you consider the median salary by age, looking specifically at chartered engineers, chemical engineers under 30 years of age earn roughly £39,000, those under 35 earn about £57,000 while those under 40 can earn up to £66,000,” Furlong says.
Those figures, taken from the IChemE’s ‘Salary Survey 2014’, show steady growth across the career path, with the figures extending to those aged between 50-55 who earn a median salary of £84,000.
Furlong also says that some chemical engineering graduates can actually expect to earn in excess of £37,000 per year, as opposed to the near-£30,000 quoted in The Times’ salary survey, and often enjoy “golden hello” lump sum payments or the clearing of their student debts.
“The top firms find the top graduates and they are being offered incredibly attractive packages because they value what those gradates will bring to their business,” Furlong says.
But if the salaries and incentives are so good, why is there an ongoing skills shortage?
Furlong claims the tide is turning, with increased numbers of students now choosing to study chemical engineering at university.
“In 2001 the graduate intake on chemical engineering programmes was just 940,” he says.
“However, it had grown to 2,790 graduates in 2013. There has been massive growth and it has really ramped up since the onset of the global financial downturn.”
Furlong, who is quick to point out that “money is not everything” in engineering, says the boost in figures is partly because there is now greater recognition for the versatility of career choice that is associated with a degree in chemical in engineering, and partly because of better diversity.
“There are far more young women studying chemical engineering than comparable engineering disciplines,” Furlong says.
“Our undergraduate population [within chemical engineering] is about 27% female. If you look at mechanical engineering, as a comparator, it’s less than 10%.”
Furlong points to Health & Safety Executive chairman Judith Hackitt, a process and chemical engineer, as an influential individual that has helped boost female graduate numbers on chemical engineering courses.
“There is huge potential for bright and professionally minded women [who are like Judith] to make a massive impact if they choose to pursue a career in chemical engineering,” Furlong says.
“If you are armed with a chemical engineering degree and a valid passport, I think the world is literally your oyster. Regardless of which engineering sector you work in, you will find a role that will be fulfilling, challenging and will make a difference to wider humanity.”