The UK economy suffers a loss of £1.5bn per year due to STEM skills shortages with a reported gap of 60,000 graduates per year in the sector according to Engineering UK. Forty-six percent of employers admit to facing difficulties in recruitment. The UK Commission for Employment & Skills has found that 43 per cent of vacancies in STEM are hard to fill due to a shortage of applicants with the required skills and experience – almost double the UK average of 24 per cent.
The lack of candidates to fill these roles is of real concern because there is no slowing down technological advancements. Take climate change and sustainability, for example, with governments announcing a range of proposals that demand technological, scientific and engineering expertise - from electric vehicles that use renewable energy to biodegradable packaging.
Many schools in the UK have had to minimise the practical experimental and manufacturing activities in schools that would previously have encouraged students to choose STEM subjects. Schools are locked in perpetual competition with their neighbours to prioritise their league tables. As such, good grades are prioritised over the career interests of the students.
There are multiple elements that need addressing here. The STEM industries need more government support, schools need better funding and students need the opportunity to experience for themselves the wonder of discovery.
Unlocking creative spirit
Although STEM-related industries are often assumed to need and employ logical and analytical individuals, the industry also needs ingenuity but is rarely associated with ‘creativity’.
It is creative flair that brings revolutionary ideas to fruition. It is therefore vital that education moves away from the fallacy that there is one right answer and enable our learners to explore multiple solutions (even the incorrect ones). Education providers need to be supported such that they provide a safe environment for learners to experiment until they eventually succeed. We all know the quote from Thomas Edison, "I didn’t fail. I just found 2,000 ways not to make a lightbulb; I only needed to find one way to make it work.” Every generation of engineers and scientists needs this resilience, the ability to pick yourself up and try again. Our education system seems to have lost this from its curriculum. Thinking differently, unconventionally or from a new perspective is at the very core of STEM.
In my experience, learners gain so much more from tackling a challenge that, as yet, has no solution. The opportunity to solve a puzzle before anyone else is intoxicating; this excitement keeps you working hard and gives you that rush when you have your first success.
For example, by engaging with companies in the development of our programmes we are able to offer live projects and authentic assessments. This model gives students two massive advantages: the opportunity to experience the highs and lows of design and development in the nurturing environment of university and the opportunity to “try” working on projects for real companies. The companies who work with us gain the opportunity to “interview” our students over the project duration and influence our curriculum. Consequently, we are far more likely to retain these talented learners within our profession.
The ‘brain drain’
Historically, the UK has produced some of the best engineers, scientists and inventors in the world. Consequently, international students have flooded to study here whilst the take-up of these subjects by our home students has languished behind. Even if we ignore the expansion of the engineering and technology sector, we are already facing the worrying prospect of having insufficient ‘engineers-in-development’ to keep pace with those retiring from the industry each year. We know that talented individuals with these skillsets can find higher salaries and greater status in other countries and, moreover, these skillsets can be used in other well-paid careers such as business, programme management and finance. So how are we going to plug this ever-widening gap?
It’s not all bad news…
There are huge governmental investments going into infrastructure and technology projects in the near future. Projects like High Speed 2 (HS2) will take years to deliver and offer young people high-profile and potentially stable employment in engineering and construction for many years to come. There is a real opportunity for new entrants to the industry to be mentored through apprenticeships in parallel with their academic studies.
Similarly, the announcement of £5bn of investment in ‘Project Gigabit’ in the government white paper ‘Levelling Up the United Kingdom’ ensures fair access to broadband across the UK which will generate employment in engineering, technology and computing. Not only are these projects great ways to encourage learners to engage with STEM, but they also provide intrinsic societal benefit and generate tax returns to the public purse.
Although 84 per cent of companies looking for STEM graduates are struggling to find talent with the right skill sets, the ‘Big Five’ (Meta [Facebook], Amazon, Alphabet [Google], Microsoft and Apple) are able to attract the brightest and best as they actively promote themselves as creative and innovative working environments. We know that these companies work closely with educational establishments to build relationships with their future employees and therefore learners have the opportunity to visualise careers with these companies.
The engineering and technology community need to work together to generate enthusiasm for the discipline by nurturing learners at every stage of their education. I would encourage each and every one in STEM to do something to support local schools, colleges and higher education establishments. We all want the same thing: creative, resilient, enthusiastic and engaged engineers, technologists and computing specialists… so let’s work together!
Professor Georgina Harris, Dean of the Faculty of STEM at Arden University