What do employers want?

Our studies coordinator, Andrea, had a busy summer interviewing the people who hire our graduates; she talked to industry representatives in both management and research and development roles, as well as human resources personnel, from a wide range of different companies with different specialities. Now that we are all back from Summer travels, and have survived the first week of the new academic year, we spent our latest curriculum team meeting poring over her findings.

First of all, I should say that we were enormously encouraged and grateful to find so many very busy people willing to donate their time to help us with our curriculum revision process; it’s clear that the professional community genuinely cares about our program and our graduates. We were a little bit flattered too, at their enthusiasm for the technical and scientific competencies of our graduates. All of the employers emphasized the excellent reputation of our institute, the rigorous education in fundamentals that our graduates are renowned for, their extensive practical and laboratory skills and the “swiss quality” of our brand.  So far, so good.

I was personally astonished, though, at their astonishment that we would want to change anything. In fact many employers even seemed somewhat concerned that we might be about to really mess things up. I learned that many aspects of our program that we consider a bit unmodern  — “traditional” materials science such as empirical processing methods, or the division of knowledge into materials “classes” rather than cross-cutting concepts — are considered strengths. And that the details of the new stuff that we had planned to teach our students — environmental issues and sustainability for example — are not terribly important to our employers, and certainly not at the expense of a rigorous training in basics. Maybe the time for post-modernism in Materials education has not yet come?

When pressed further, however, the topic of skills beyond the technical (the german phrase for this — nicht-fachliche Kompetenzen — is fabulous) came up repeatedly. The importance of teamwork, communication and presentation skills, industrial internship experience, goal-setting and self-learning, and so on. These are certainly competencies that we plan to address with project-based learning approaches. Inter-cultural competencies and language skills were also mentioned; it will be challenging to incorporate these into the time available for the degree, assuming that my North-of-England heritage and dialect is not what they had in mind.

The criticism that I am struggling with most, which came up repeatedly, is that our graduates are too picky, in that they expect work that is too interesting and salaries that are too high. Now while we of course don’t want to be releasing cohorts of arrogant prima donnas into the workforce (and as a newcomer to Switzerland I can objectively say that swissness is antithetical to primadonnaness), a bit of pickiness in terms of how interesting one’s work should be strikes me as something we should be trying to nurture rather than discourage. I can wish nothing better for our graduates than that they find stimulating and interesting ways to contribute to society. And I see no downside to our women graduates in particular (finally) negotiating aggressively for their starting salaries. But that is a subject for another very long discussion…


About Nicola Spaldin

Nicola Spaldin is the professor of materials theory at ETH Zürich. She is a passionate science educator, director of her department’s study program, and holder of the ETH Golden Owl Award for excellence in teaching. She developed the class of materials known as multiferroics, which combine simultaneous ferromagnetism and ferroelectricity, and when not trying to make a room-temperature superconductor, can be found playing her clarinet, or skiing or climbing in the Alps.
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