From education to employment

Cultivating STEM Seeds: How Businesses Can Take Root in Schools

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Businesses must engage with further education facilities to cultivate STEM interest organically, addressing the skills gaps and bridging education-industry divides. Grassroots initiatives, such as after-school clubs and mentorship programs, foster genuine passion and practical skills. Adaptability to educational changes, reducing unconscious bias, and long-term commitment is crucial for success.

It’s been 25 years since UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, pledged that 50% of students should go to university. While Tony Blair’s 50% university target may have been met, the landscape of education and employment has had a big shift in the years since. Growing student debt, a skills gap in vital sectors like STEM, and a growing disconnect between academic qualifications and industry needs threatens the success of the next generation. But amongst the chaos, a hopeful alternative emerges: grassroots engagement.

Businesses must move beyond boardrooms and into schools. They can nurture the next generation of STEM talent, not through ungenuine diversity objectives, but through creating organic connections and a love for the subjects at its very roots.

This need for a robust and diverse STEM talent pool is paramount. Yet, despite initiatives being implemented at a more macro level, there is a persistent detachment between educational systems and industry needs. This divide results in untapped talent being missed and an uneven distribution of opportunities within STEM organisations. To bridge this gap and create a solid ground for the next generation of workers and investors, a change is required that prioritises grassroots engagement between businesses and schools.

School visits shouldn’t be boring

This doesn’t mean boring career talks that aren’t targeted to school leavers and teens. After-school robotics clubs provided by STEM institutions and personalised mentorship programs which pair young minds with passionate role models from diverse backgrounds is much more effective. This micro-level engagement, supported by grassroots initiatives, is key to teaching school leavers not just the theoretical knowledge learnt in schools, but practical application needed in the workplace.

Many organisations are already putting their spin on the typical STEM subjects and adding a real-life flare to them, for example using a maths class to talk about the importance of financial literacy. Recently, a school in Edinburgh became a hub for a women in computing event. Over 300 attendees were introduced to leading STEM spokespeople and women working in the tech sector. They were able to showcase their skills and capabilities in the form of engaging workshops to grow awareness and inspire women in technology. In educating pupils about STEM careers, through engaging workshops, project-based learning, and early exposure to real-world challenges, businesses and schools can help spark a genuine interest in STEM in young minds.

Understand changes in the education system

The recent educational restructuring in the UK, with the demise of T-levels and the introduction of the “Advanced British Standard,” highlights the need for adaptability. Businesses must navigate this changing landscape with a commitment to long-term partnerships and a willingness to adjust their approach based on feedback from schools and students. Embracing change and creating open communication will ensure that grassroots initiatives have long lasting results, regardless of the educational framework in place.

Reduce unconscious bias

The challenge to engaging school leavers is not just about inspiring them. Unconscious biases can often subtly steer students away from certain fields which creates an uneven talent pool that fails to represent the next generation’s potential. Businesses can become key players in implementing this change. These organisations that go into schools must do as they say and establish strong connections with careers leaders and pupils to build initiatives that continue to strengthen grassroot strategies. To constantly improve micro-level involvement, businesses should think of ways to monitor the effectiveness of these initiatives. These can then be developed and adapted as the corporate landscape changes.

However, removing unconscious bias requires a cultural shift in mindset and autocratic thinking. Leaders that recognise the skills needed to overcome unconscious bias are going to be key in overcoming it. They will not only help with widening their businesses talent pool but can use emerging technologies like AI to create stronger grassroot strategies that can help break down thoughts that unconscious bias is built on. Businesses that take the lead in promoting these leaders, mentors and spokespeople can help drive passion in schools and inspire the future workforce.

In it for the long run

There are many benefits of this grassroots approach for businesses. Creating a diverse and passionate STEM workforce shouldn’t be done to simply hit an organisations diversity marker; it’s a strategic investment in a company’s own future. A talent pool fuelled by passion, understanding of the field and applied thinking leads to greater adaptability, problem-solving abilities, and most importantly, a competitive advantage.

This development of STEM talent needs a long-term commitment, it should not just be a fleeting trend. It requires collaboration between businesses and schools, an interest in understanding constant changes in the education system and dedication to dismantle invisible barriers like unconscious bias. Change will come from after-school coding clubs and local internship programs, and schools wanting to create a desirable and passionate environment for STEM to thrive. It is in this grassroots approach, grounded in collaboration, inclusivity, and a shared vision, that we grow the next generation of STEM pioneers.

By Sarah-Jayne Van-Greune, Chief Operating Officer at Payen & ILIXIUM

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