The energy industries and in particular oil and gas have presented a rich employment market for graduates in recent years, reflecting the vibrancy of the industry in the UKCS and the war for talent.
This war has often focused on the need for engineering and geoscience graduates, but has by no means been limited to those disciplines. The associated commercial and support roles into which graduates of management, accounting and law can progress have also seen an increase and offer attractive graduate schemes.
Energy is also a dynamic and innovative industry and one that understands the importance of engaging with universities and their students in order to recruit the brightest and best.
The sector, especially oil and gas, is also one that has invested in scholarships over many years and such schemes are of great value to both sponsoring companies and universities in providing a link through to encourage very able students to focus during their studies on aspects of their subject of particular relevance.
Of course, the research linkages and connections between industry and academia also send powerful messages to students and research expertise both underpins course content but also ensures that high performing students are attracted to those universities with research partnerships.
Robert Gordon University (RGU) has an outstanding record of graduate employability, alongside other universities such as Heriot Watt, Strathclyde and Aberdeen. Successful universities tend to have very clearly focused and industry attractive programmes such as RGU’s MEng in Mechanical or Electrical Engineering, the MSc in Asset Integrity Mangement, the MBA in Oil and Gas Management or the MSc in Oil and Gas Accounting.
From such programmes, students tend to very quickly gain employment in the sector. Clearly, our geographic closeness to the industry in Scotland plays something of a part too, although that is far from being the full story.
Our employability record is one that RGU has held for many years but we are not complacent and recently undertook a review of the aspects of our courses that we felt had helped deliver high levels of past graduate employability and putting in place new enhancements which would support continuing success.
Factors that have helped to ensure graduate employability include the professional focus of the university, which attracts career-orientated applicants. The vocational orientation of many of our courses also means that they are designed ab initio with input from industry and the professions and this input from practitioners continues throughout the life of courses and in their periodic review.
Other UK universities engaging with oil and gas also use this approach to varying degrees.
At RGU, wherever possible, course teams seek to win relevant professional body accreditation, from, for example, the Energy Institute or the Association for Project Management, alongside equality benchmarks from bodies such as AMBA (the Association of MBAs). Professional body accreditations require course content and delivery to be mapped against industry technical skills and competence requirements and provide assurance both to prospective students and employers that graduates will be ready for their first professional employment.
Other fundamentally important aspects of employability include that students have opportunities to learn from industry practice, in addition to their mastery of theory.
This is most obviously gained through placement periods of up to a year in industry and this is a part of the student experience that they tell us they really appreciate in terms of the grounding of theory in practice and growth in confidence and mastery of the softer skills.
Such industry awareness is also achieved through practitioner input into course delivery, special lectures and master-classes and increasingly through industry commissioned projects in, for example, our Oil and Gas Management MBA.
Fundamentally, for universities to be successful in ensuring high levels of graduate employability, they must have excellent connections to industry and associated professions.
They have to listen to industry and the professions and to work together to extend knowledge. However, we also have to provide the right graduates for the roles; it’s not enough to embed content in the courses, we also have to help our graduates to deliver once in their new post. If we do not, then employability will suffer and the best marketing in the world cannot replace positive experience among employers.
Placement is again a crucial factor here for students who have undertaken an extended placement or amassed a portfolio of relevant experience will be ready to deliver, understand what is likely to be expected of them and have confidence in their own capacity to do the job.
Success breeds success and employers will be more positive about employing a future graduate from a university that has provided high-quality graduates in the past.
Our survey of employers is an incredibly useful tool in identifying areas where improvements should be made, and one of the areas that we sought to improve recently has been that of students’ capacity to handle the recruitment and selection process with confidence.
Finally, one area we sought to extend recently which we felt has materially added to our students’ employability is that of study and placement abroad. In entering a global industry and recruitment marketplace, graduates have to fight hard to stand out.
Ways in which students can differentiate themselves from others include willingness to live and work elsewhere. We have had great success in raising the numbers of students both studying in Aberdeen from overseas, but also in sending Scottish students out across the world to study and work.
A final point relates to the extent to which universities’ alumni enter the energy industries and become advocates for their university. Our alumni are one of our greatest assets: we bring them back in to inspire students, they provide placements for our students, they convey the message of our graduate excellence and they ultimately often employ our students.
I am always astonished by the extent that it is impossible to visit an oil and gas region of the world without encountering alumni with fond memories of Scotland and a preparedness to go the extra mile to help our current students.
Professor Marcella is the Dean of Aberdeen Business School – Robert Gordon University.