Comment: Removing barriers will boost STEM sector recruitment

STEM sector Improving inclusion and diversity across the STEM sector industries needs to start from within, says Natalie Desty, director of STEM Returners

Giving people an opportunity. Being open to new ideas. Not judging people by what’s on paper, but what’s in front of you. All of those sentences sound so easy, so why does the STEM industry still have an inclusion and diversity problem?

In 2021, 10 per cent of the STEM workforce are female and six per cent are from a BME background.

An inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on diversity and inclusion in STEM, said there was an overall lack of representation in the STEM sector of minoritised groups such as black people, women, disabled people and those from the LGBTQ+ community and the STEM sector is losing valuable skills, experiences and perspectives, and cannot reach its full potential without greater equity in the workplace. The report said the COVID-19 pandemic had made the situation worse. So as we begin to ‘return to normal’, now is the perfect time to start a new.

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We all need to do more to improve inclusion and diversity across the sector and it starts by looking inward at our own recruitment processes and challenging outdated practices. STEM leaders need to do more help their own organisations become more inclusive and actively seek out diversity, which is proven to increase business success.

We know there is a skills shortage within STEM – the Royal Academy of Engineering has estimated that UK engineering employers need to recruit 182,000 engineers annually to keep up with demand and suggested that firms need to double its recruitment of graduates and apprentices to meet the shortfall.

But despite this clear need for skilled people, there is a hidden workforce with thousands of talented professionals who are being overlooked every day because they have a gap on their CV.

These candidates deserve equal opportunity to gain employment, regardless of age, race, gender but they are still experiencing bias in the recruitment process.

Our latest STEM Returners Index survey revealed that 37 per cent of participants said they experienced bias in the recruitment process due to their age, while 43 per cent of people who identified as BME said they had experienced bias due to race or ethnicity. Female engineers are more likely to be victims of recruitment bias, according to the survey – 27 per cent of women said they feel they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to their gender compared to eight per cent of men.

There is a perception that a career break automatically leads to a deterioration of skills

The pool of STEM Professionals attempting to return to industry is significantly more diverse than the average STEM organisation. Those attempting to return to work are 51 per cent female and 38 per cent from black and minority ethnic groups.

STEM organisations are clearly missing a major opportunity to get highly skilled, talented people – particularly women and ethnic minority groups – back into the industry.

There is a perception that a career break automatically leads to a deterioration of skills. But the reality is, that many people on a career break keep themselves up to date with their industry, are able to refresh their skills easily when back in work and have developed new transferable skills that would actually benefit their employers.

Companies need to look inward and do more to update recruitment practices, challenge unconscious bias and think more broadly about how they access this hidden talent pool, giving talented professionals a fair chance.

Change is happening but slowly. We are proud to be making a difference and working with some leading engineering and STEM organisations to implement Returner Programmes. We have now successfully placed more than 200 professionals on programmes in a variety of areas – aerospace, defense, energy – and the feedback we receive is always very positive. Candidates tell us of the support they receive and how they feel they are contrubiting to the firm’s vision, while recruiters and managers tell us about the expertise the candidate has brought to the project.

This is very positive but more needs to be done to change a wider culture that still views career breaks negatively instead of a completely normal part of many people’s working life.

By updating traditional standardised recruitment methods that search for the ‘unicorn’ candidate and challenging unconscious biases, the UK engineering sector could potentially become the example for others to follow in the search for diversity and inclusion.

Natalie Desty, director of STEM Returners