From education to employment

Are the Education Secretary’s new technology institutes enough to address the #STEM skills gap?

Rachel Blair, Pipeline Medical Manager, Neuromuscular, Roche UK

There is a serious STEM skills crisis in this country. The current shortfall, estimated to be 173,000 workers across science, technology, engineering and mathematics, is hindering the development of new medicine and innovation aimed at making people’s lives easier. A staggering 97% of STEM-related organisation have struggled to fill a skilled vacancy over the last year, underlining the scale of the problem.

Promisingly, the government is taking action to address the issue. Recently, the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, announced £120 million of funding for 8 new institutes of technology for 8 new institutes of technology, pledging to build a specialist institution in every region of England. Alongside these new colleges, Williamson committed to opening eleven maths-focused free schools, focusing on teaching maths, further maths and physics to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Innovative policy-making can undoubtedly make a difference. Williamson’s announcement will no doubt lead to more graduates with a high level of technical training in STEM subjects, contributing towards tackling the shortfall and ensuring the UK competes with countries boasting a long tradition of technical training, such as Germany and Singapore.

While these proposals bring optimism, are they enough to address the scale of the skills gap? In recent research we conducted as part of GenerationeXt, “A shortfall in science The UK’s life sciences industry at risk as teens turn away from science“, we found that the problem could be more deep-rooted than previously thought.

When it comes to teenage pupil attitudes towards STEM, the study shows there is a serious confidence crisis and growing inequality between pupils from wealthy and disadvantaged backgrounds. What’s clear is that it’s going to take collaboration between different parties; FE colleges, universities and businesses; to show that it’s not just about having the capacity to teach STEM, but also motivating students to engage with the subject.

The confidence crisis

Shining new light on attitudes towards science in schools, the study found that nearly a third (29%) of teenage girls don’t feel smart enough to study the subject beyond school, compared to 20% of boys. This is despite over three quarters (77%) saying that they enjoy science classes – highlighting that there is a real waste of potential taking place. It’s a perception gap that should prompt everyone involved in STEM to question how they can instil more confidence in teenagers studying science and maths.

We should all be concerned about gender diversity in STEM, and the statistics make for very worrying reading. 28% of girls said that they’re not interested in science compared with just 18% of boys, while fewer females said that science classes are fun (a 9% gap between the genders).

The inequality doesn’t stop there. The contrasts in attitudes between students from wealthy and poorer backgrounds were startling. A higher percentage of students from household incomes of £125k or more said they enjoy science classes (91%) compared to those from poorer households. Further emphasising wealth as a factor, the study found that teenagers from richer backgrounds were nearly four times as likely to go into a science-based career than their poorer counterparts.

Clearly, there are misconceptions about science as a career, some of which are (admittedly) difficult to dispel. For example, the fact is that the UK has the lowest proportion of women in engineering of any European country, with females representing just 10% of roles. Bright and ambitious young girls could look at statistics like those, which are well-publicised in the media, and question whether a career in STEM is really for them.

Changing perceptions, dispelling myths

While government policies, such as those announced by Williamson, undoubtedly go some way to closing the STEM skills gap, there is clearly more to be done to reach pupils in classrooms across the UK who may enjoy science lessons, but don’t feel confident enough to pursue it. FE colleges, universities and businesses need to come together to find solutions that can educate and inspire.

First, educational institutions should consider how they can give back to the local community. Imperial College London, for example, has launched a five-year programme dedicated to widening access to STEM, expanding outreach programmes to areas outside of London, as well as launching programmes aimed specifically at black students and other underrepresented groups. It’s even considering the establishment of a Maths Sixth Form School to equip young people from disadvantaged backgrounds with the skills they need.

FE colleges and universities should also consider working with charities such as In2Science, which encourage students from minority backgrounds to pursue careers in STEM and progress to research careers. The organisation provides over 1,000 STEM placements, partnering with leading universities, the NHS, DeepMind, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Nesta, the Science Museum and Roche.

Aside from partnering with charities such as In2Science, businesses have an important independent role to play. The first and most obvious approach is to launch internship schemes that treat young people as future employees, giving them hands-on experience wherever possible.

Apprenticeships are the next step, attracting school-leavers enthusiastic about STEM, equipping them with core technical skills and laying out a clear career path to motivate and inspire them.

GenerationeXt is one example of an initiative delivering positive STEM-specific experiences for schoolchildren. With 150 dedicated corporate ambassadors going into schools and running science classes and career talks, the scheme is demonstrating just how rewarding a career in science and technology can be. It also involves a dedicated work experience placement for Year 12 students, showing them what it’s like to work in the healthcare sector and giving them the experience needed to apply for apprenticeship schemes later.

Ultimately, it’s in all our interests to nurture a healthy pipeline of talent. The STEM skills gap is something that’s hindering the development of cutting-edge medicine and technology that benefits us all. It’s vital that all parties involved – the education sector, business, government – come together to dispel myths and shift perceptions.

Rachel Blair, Pipeline Medical Manager, Neuromuscular, Roche UK

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