Comment: STEM A Levels must underpin green future

We need more young people to take STEM A Levels if we are to reach net zero, writes David Wright FREng, Chief Engineer at National Grid

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A Level Results Day is primarily a day for celebration and across the country, thousands of young people, their families and their teachers will be celebrating the fruits of years of hard work.


For some, it will mark a significant milestone in their journey to working in the net zero workforce of the future, as the UK and wider world shift away from fossil fuels and to having an energy system powered by clean energy sources.

Despite STEM (science, technology, engineering or maths) subjects experiencing a slight increase in popularity at A Level over the past decade, the talent pipeline needed for net zero is still not big enough. The UK energy sector needs to recruit 400,000 people between 2020 and 2050 to meet the country’s net zero targets. That equates to a necessary increase in the number of young people taking A levels in physics and maths of 24 per cent and 19 per cent respectively.

Not only do we need a bigger talent pool, we also need it to be more diverse. Currently girls, people from ethnic minorities and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are underrepresented in STEM. That’s why National Grid is working in partnership with organisations like the social enterprise MyKindaFuture to provide more than 100,000 pupils from underserved communities with STEM training and career inspiration over a five-year period.

The Royal Academy of Engineering’s ‘This is Engineering’ campaign, does a great job of highlighting diverse role models and challenging pre-conceived ideas, but there’s much more work to do across industry and education to change perceptions and promote STEM careers to young people.

Another way that those of us in industry can work to increase the attractiveness of STEM subjects is showing young people that not only can these subjects lead to an exciting and intellectually satisfying career, but a financially rewarding one as well. Previous research commissioned by the Department for Education found that, on average, people who studied two or more STEM subjects at A level earned 13.1 per cent more over the course of their careers. This career earnings uplift for studying STEM subjects at A level is more significant for women, who can see a 23.7 per cent earnings premium over the course of their careers.

The role of teachers is critical here, but it’s not just STEM industries that are struggling with the talent pipeline – there have also been challenges around the supply of STEM teachers in recent years. The continued provision of teacher grant funding with a focus on net zero and STEM subjects, as well as upskilling the existing teaching workforce through targeted Continual Professional Development (CPD) can help ensure our schools and colleges have the support and resources needed to provide young people with the green skills needed for the future. 

And finally, government also needs to play its part to ensure young people have the skills and knowledge needed to be part of the net zero workforce, through increasing the reach and output of task forces such as the Green Jobs Delivery Group, which brings together stakeholders from industry, government and the education sector. Yearly data on skills gaps for example would be one way to help identify where focus is needed and the most effective interventions to deliver a future green workforce.

The good news is that research shows young people are highly motivated to pursue purpose-driven careers that can make a difference in achieving net zero. So if the net zero industries and education sector can collaborate more closely to address some of the barriers to higher STEM uptake, the hope is that there will be even more to celebrate in A Level Results Days of the future.

David Wright FREng is Chief Engineer at National Grid