STEM skills collaboration will guide COVID recovery

3 min read

STEM skills

A COVID recovery that is sustainable and long-term will require business, public institutions and non-profits to collaborate in bridging the skills gap, says James Sopwith, Group Strategic Account Director at adi Group.

2020 will go down in the annals of history as a pivotal year. We’ve all had to adapt quickly to new circumstances, as businesses, as individuals and as a society.

But, despite the enforced changes we have managed so successfully, COVID-19 has thrown into sharp relief our need to deal with some of the issues that have bubbled along in the background for a while.

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Now, I’m not about to list every societal woe and you might think that, with the economy suffering, we should deal with that as a priority. But, sometimes, addressing one problem helps with another.

In that sense, we have a great opportunity to collaborate between business, the public sector and community groups, and start bridging a UK STEM skills gap that Enginuity has been arguing can only be filled by an additional 1.8 million trained staff before 2025.

In the process, we can begin to forge a lasting recovery that creates high quality, high pay jobs, greater social mobility and a more cohesive and sustainable society. We just need to play a longer game.

Thinking long-term

A lot has been said about the £2bn Kickstart fund being made available to pay for minimum wage jobs for 16 to 24 year olds on universal credit over the next six months.

Some question the value of the scheme but it will, as a minimum, give short-term opportunities for young people facing hardship and serve to support consumer spending.

But we need to think further ahead and create longer-term opportunities for young people who haven’t had many breaks in recent years, and who have seen this year how precarious employment can be. We owe them the skills to navigate an economy that is evolving at great pace.

Working hand-in-hand

If we are to upskill the workforce significantly, it cannot be left to government alone. Given the Open University reports that the skills gap is already costing UK companies £6.3bn a year, it will benefit the business community to work with schools and non-profits to find ways to teach young people STEM skills.

We must work together to weather the COVID storm and engineer a more sustainable future, developing the skills of an untapped generation of talent right under our noses. We must switch young people on to the very real opportunities out there.

I know there are plenty and I can point to a couple of schemes that serve as examples of the kind of initiatives that should play a role in both opening up new possibilities for youngsters and insulating our economy for the long-term.

A sense of purpose

Business in the Community (BITC) runs what it calls Ready for Work, a programme providing opportunities for some of society’s most disadvantaged people to enter work.

With BITC’s help, we’ve been able to create opportunities for several young people from difficult backgrounds. The training we’ve provided has given them a sense of purpose and optimism about their futures. It has also benefited the business greatly.

We’ve also pioneered a unique pre-apprenticeship scheme in conjunction with a local school that introduces boys and girls to engineering from the age of 14.

We give them hands-on experience of practical skills and a real-life work environment and, spending about 10% of their GCSE curriculum time on-site with us, they gain an EAL qualification that acts as a springboard to a full-time apprenticeship. The programme has inspired 60 young people in five years and 50% of the first two intakes are still with us today.

Shared responsibilities

These are precisely the kind of collaborations between business, the public sector and non-profits we need to replicate across engineering and the entire economy. They change people’s lives and provide them with the skills the economy so desperately needs, so we need to see a lot more of them.

I’d urge all engineering businesses to reach out to explore ways they and third-party groups can work together to start dealing with the fundamental issue of skills. While the government’s 2019 industrial strategy pledges to invest heavily in STEM and technical education, business has serious skin in the game.

In that spirit, we’d be more than happy for others to copy our pre-apprenticeship model and welcome enquiries on that front. But it can only work as a component of a much broader combined effort.

The road to a genuinely sustainable recovery will be long. Yet, people, businesses and all manner of organisations share the same destiny, so bridging the STEM skills gap is crucial to us all. And we must all play our part.

James Sopwith, Group Strategic Account Director at adi Group