Year 13: The Final Frontier

If you’re in Year 13 now and considering university as your next step post A-levels, then your head is probably swimming with just 4 little letters… UCAS.  As the pressure mounts to make decisions and submit the form, take heart.  The pain now will almost certainly be worth the gain.

University is your best move to secure long term employment and higher salary.  This is especially so if you wish to study a STEM course – that is science, technology, engineering and maths.  Research suggests that maths, physics, chemistry and engineering all have a significantly higher lifetime earnings benefit than the average for all degrees.*  PwC’s report shows that when all degree holders are compared to individuals who hold 2 A levels or more but no degree, they could achieve additional lifetime earnings of £129,000.  For physics and chemistry graduates this figure jumps to £188,000 whilst for their maths and engineering comrades the amount is an enviable £220,000.

There are a number of reasons why this should be so.  In a report published by The Royal Society in February this year, it cited that British universities produce fewer than 10,000 science graduates each year.  In 2009, just 17% of 16-18 year olds took one or more science A-levels, and an increasing number of schools do not enter any candidates at all in physics or maths.  This means that for the majority of STEM specialist employers (ie. employers who can only recruit those with the technical knowledge a STEM degree would supply) there is a shortfall of graduates to fill their core functions.  So when demand is high but supply is low then salaries must rise to attract the best calibre of graduate.

And there’s another reason STEM graduates can earn more over their lifetime.  A very high proportion of these graduates display key employability skills in the form of numeracy and analytical ability, and problem-solving skills.  Such skills are in constant high demand by non-STEM employers, particularly in the world of banking/finance.  And which industry sector has an abundance of well-established, well-funded and substantial graduate schemes?  You guessed it – banking/finance.

Take this year’s Sunday Times’ guide on the Top 25 Best Big Companies To Work For.  Of the top 20, just 6 companies sit within the banking/finance sector.  But when you add up the total number of graduate vacancies offered by this pool of 20, the 6 banking/finance companies make up a whopping 74% of the total.  PwC wanted 1200 graduates this year and KPMG weren’t too far behind on 850.  When companies like these are recruiting such big numbers their recruitment strategies need to be well-funded, extremely active on campus and targeted.  So, inevitably, STEM graduates will be drawn to those companies that are most visible and shout the loudest.  Furthermore, the banking/finance sector offers the most competitive starting salaries for graduates.  A graduate entering the insurance field could start on £25,500 pa.

I must confess to considerable envy of anyone who has a STEM degree.  (My passion was history and I had to re-take maths O’ Level – need I say more?)  Not only do they have a greater number of jobs to choose from (STEM and non-STEM) but the variety of jobs on offer makes me drool… literally!

In my Marks and Spencer days I was, at one time, responsible for producing the graduate brochure for our latest recruitment campaign.  This was a very glossy, and costly, piece of marketing material that had to showcase M&S at its very best.  We went to great trouble profiling individuals who had worked their way up the ranks, having started out on the graduate training programme.  One such individual was the Head of Cheese.  She was a Food Product Developer by training and was absolutely passionate about the smelly stuff!  If only I had worked harder at science at school for I, too, could have worked with suppliers, buyers and packaging teams to create the best hot cross bun EVER!  Sickeningly, FPDs also get to travel the world sourcing their ingredients.  But what was the best part of the job for the Head of Cheese?  Attending cheese festivals, tasting the competition and walking away with an award.

(Tip:  if a foodie career appeals to you then there are 6 universities you need to look at first:  Surrey, Leeds, Reading, Nottingham, Newcastle and Queens, Belfast.  All have close links with industry which means they share research and coordinate work placements.)

Of course, you don’t have to pinpoint your career at this stage.  Whether you choose a STEM course or not, your earnings potential is greater with a degree.  Just be certain that the course you choose is one you really want to do.  It will be a long, and expensive, slog through uni’ if not.

  • Source: The Economic Benefit of Higher Education Qualifications produced for The Royal Society of Chemistry and the Institute of Physics by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, January 2005