The UK’s STEM industries will struggle for years to come if they cannot overcome the growing disconnect between their people needs and the skills available. The biggest single part of this challenge, will be in overcoming poor perceptions and misapprehensions that exist amongst students. This will mean creating powerful communications that inspire the talent of today and the STEM superstars of tomorrow.
According to the Science Council there are currently 5.8 million people employed in STEM-based occupations in the UK, and this could reach 7.1 million by 2030. The early signs of this growth are also clear to see, with the IET finding that 41% of organisations plan to recruit engineering, IT or technical staff across 2014, up 5% from 2013.
However, Semta, the sector skills council for STEM technologies, believes the UK could actually face a serious shortfall of up to 80,000 workers within the next three years alone. This will be driven by a wall of retirement, and could be a severe check on the growth of our leading STEM organisations.
Indeed, the IET finds that 42% of firms needing STEM skills have experienced difficulty in recruiting STEM-skilled staff in the last year. Worryingly, the report also notes that over half (59%) of companies believe a lack of available engineers will be a threat to their business in the coming year.
This shortfall is comes at a critical growth point for STEM industries and it is imperative that Government and industry take action today to avoid the situation worsening in years to come.
In fact, according to the CBI’s recent Engineering Our Future report, 17% of STEM businesses currently have problems finding suitable graduates and one in ten (13%) say it is hard to find people to train as apprentices. Thisindicates that the educational system may not be providing the skills or the quantities of graduates STEM industries so desperately need.
The shortage of graduate and school-leaver applicants is compounded by gaps in the educational picture. While there are some positive signs at university level, with the highest ever STEM course intake in 2013-14 (98,000 students according to Hefce), issues remain at secondary level. For example Joint Council for Qualifications, notes that the number of people sitting ICT A-levels, for example, fell in 2013; falling to 9,479 students in 2013 from 10,419 in 2012.
This is an area rightly being addressed by the Government as it attempts to put science and maths at the core of today’s curriculum. Putting coding on the new primary curriculum is also a laudable attempt to start kids thinking about STEM problems as early as possible, in spite of the obvious skills challenges amongst teaching staff.
However, the real challenge comes when you look beyond the educational building blocksof a STEM career, at motivations. A recent report by the Department for Education found that although the majority of 10-14 year olds in England enjoy and are interested in science, only 17% of these children aspire to having a STEM career.
Why is this? Cadburys’ parent company, Mondelez, polled 14-18 year olds on just this subject. According to its research nearly half (44%) of young people the main reason they avoid STEM subjects at school is because they find them boring. Two fifths (40%) also believe the subjects are less ‘fun’. Also, over half (53%) thought that the subjects were ‘harder’ with over two thirds (67%) believing that only the cleverest people can work in a STEM related job.
While there is a lot of work underway in education to push STEM subjects, there is clearly a missing piece to this puzzle: how to excite students about the possibilities of a STEM career and overcome the misconceptions about working in these fields.
While formal education can prepare students for the scientific and mathematical rigoursof a STEM career, it is not best placed to tackle this challenge. As the organisations benefiting from and applying STEM expertise, we believe there is a big opportunity for industry to take up the mantle here, inspiring the talent of tomorrow about potential careers.
It is up to those in industry to show the world what they can do, to create exciting and engaging communications and experiences and grasp the opportunity to foster an interest in STEM with both hands. Only by engaging with people in innovative ways, presenting exciting ideas and concepts in ways that inspire the young and old about the possibilities of STEM industries, will the UK ever be able to create the much needed talent of the future.