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Could International Students be the Answer to the UK’s STEM Talent Shortage?

Meti Basiri, co-founder and CMO of ApplyBoard, the international student recruitment platform

Most, if not all sectors, continue to be impacted by the growing skills shortage across the UK. In fact, data from the Office for National Statistics revealed that 7 of 18 industry sectors displayed record high ratios of vacancies.

Skilled workers, especially those that specialise in STEM subjects, are in high demand. In fact, data from the UK Commission for Employment & Skills reveals that 43% of STEM vacancies are hard to fill. This isn’t something which businesses expect to change either as more than half of employers believe the skills shortage will get worse over the next 10 years.

When it comes to individual STEM sectors, technology and IT roles are proving hard to recruit for. Recent data from BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, confirmed UK information and communication job vacancies increased by 191% in Q3 2021 when compared to the same period in 2020. This indicates that there is substantial competition within the UK tech sector for qualified workers.

This is a staggering figure – especially when you take into consideration the fact our lives are becoming more and more dependent on technology. Meaning, the tech space is having to constantly evolve to meet demand. This, combined with the ‘great resignation,’ is only likely to result in the number of job vacancies in the technology industry increasing further.

So, what solutions are there to bridge the gap when it comes to supply and demand?

Bridging the STEM skills gap

Earlier this year, the UK government broadened eligibility criteria for those who are considered skilled workers in various sectors, including technology. Then, in May, the news broke that the UK government was introducing a High Potential Individual (HPI) visa for graduates who hold a degree – equivalent to either a UK undergraduate or master’s degree – from one of the world’s top 50 non-UK universities.

It’s undeniable that these are great options for those who have already started their career or are at least ready to step onto the career ladder, as these will ultimately help bridge the skills gap. There are however other areas which need to be explored to really close the gap.

International students could be the answer

Hundreds of thousands of students outside of the UK are currently considering their next step, and a percentage of these will be exploring their opportunities to study internationally – in particular the possibility of studying in the UK.

In fact, according to HESA data, 29 UK universities experienced an increase in international enrollment of at least 20% in the 2020/2021 academic year. The UK also experienced steady growth across non-European student markets including Pakistan, Nigeria and India. This is remarkable, given this growth occurred during a pandemic.

When it comes to the courses which international students are interested in, data from HESA reveals that business and management, engineering and technology, social sciences, and computing are the top four most popular courses amongst international students from the academic year of 2020/2021.

This is great news for leaders in the tech and IT sectors who are currently struggling to fill roles and, with the field constantly evolving and growing there will undoubtedly be even more jobs to fill over the coming years. So, what can be done to ensure these students stay in the UK and ultimately help solve the skills shortage? And to that point, with the UK’s international student population continuing to boom, how will we ensure that international students have a good experience?

Strengthening UK infrastructure to support international STEM students

From an educational institution point of view, it’s great to see that so many international students are exploring their options in the UK. However, this is a huge increase in demand and many institutions don’t have the infrastructure in place to be able to process the applications, let alone support them through their studies. For this reason, educational institutions need to explore what processes and structures can be implemented to give international students the best chance of course acceptance. And in addition to that, institutions should consider if accommodations, faculties and spaces are well-equipped to meet demands in the long term.

Then, when international students are in the UK studying, more needs to be done to educate them on what opportunities are out there. Whether it’s UK or non-UK students, it goes without saying that making your way onto the career ladder is tough – especially when organisations are looking for skilled, experienced new recruits. With this being a growing trend, especially across the STEM sectors, it’s up to leaders in the education space to help students understand what opportunities are available for work experience, internships, sandwich courses and graduate apprenticeships.

With global competition for talent being so high, there needs to be more alignment than ever before between industries in need of talent, the educational institutions, and government to bridge the gaps between needs and the talented international students coming to the UK. This way there is a clearer path between what students are studying and the workforce needs within the UK economy to keep it moving forward. Creating regular coordination between industry leaders and institutions is a big step in the right direction and something that can have long-term benefits.

The Graduate Route offers employers the chance to recruit international students for two to three years, while there is also the sponsor license option. The Graduate Route offers the promise of at least two years post-graduation. The introduction of the Graduate Route helped bring the UK to 8% growth in international enrollment during 2020/21 academic years.

For those organisations which are looking to nurture and train their new employees, the sponsor license is a great follow-on from the Graduate Route to give international graduates a permanent role.

International students bring a fresh perspective to not only educational environments, but also workplaces. The life experiences, ways of working and global lens which international students bring with them are invaluable to innovation and growth.

Before even considering life after university, international students have already shown many of the skills employers are looking for – they’ve overcome boundaries and have shown their agility when it comes to embracing change. Ultimately, the diversity and life experiences of these students will help build an enriching experience and will also help to solve the UK’s growing skills shortage.

By Meti Basiri, co-founder and CMO of ApplyBoard, the international student recruitment platform.
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