From education to employment


Bob Sims, Chief HR Officer, Park Place Technologies

By Bob Sims, Chief HR Officer, Park Place Technologies

Our future depends on our ability to innovate out of a crisis – and STEM skills form the bedrock of this resilience. While technology may be the enabler of our recovery from this pandemic and the ticket to more sustainable futures, it is nothing without skilled humans to shape it. STEM professionals are the architects of our future, that is why the UK’s skills gap is so alarming – and why we must act now.

The STEM skills gap has been years in the making and is being felt across the tech industry. As HR departments lead recruitment through a dearth of competitive talent, these challenges are here for the long term. Tech businesses are creating strategies to help bridge the gap, but there are a few hard facts that must also be acknowledged.

Research published by the Learning & Work Institute this year reveals that 70% of young people expect employers to invest in teaching them digital skills on the job, but only half of the employers surveyed in the study are able to provide that training. Addressing the schism between expectation and reality is an obvious and necessary step.

Top tech businesses are ramping up internship programmes that provide vital work experience and nourish STEM skillsets – as well as developing outcome-driven STEM outreach programmes. These are essential steps towards bridging the gap, but more must be done.

The Learning & Work Institute research found that the number of young people taking IT subjects at GCSE has dropped 40% since 2015. This comes just as demand for AI, cloud and robotics skills are peaking. It leans into a need for a fundamental shake up from the grassroots of education.

‘Technology’ needs a brand refresh, that places it in the real-world context of game-changing transformations. Not only do students need to see themselves in these careers and feel excited by them, but this opportunity to be at the forefront of future innovations must be truly equitable. Bringing a fully diverse, representative stream of STEM professionals into the workforce is crucial to building a world that is truly inclusive. This means bringing forward diverse role models and carving out clear pathways towards clearly defined job roles.

Businesses can make an impact by supporting community and education-based initiatives, from establishing gaming and coding clubs, to collaborating with schools on curriculums, to ensure they prepare students for real-world STEM careers. But ultimately, this goes beyond the remit of businesses alone.

The Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) recently penned an open letter to Boris Johnson, signed by 150 world leading engineers, scientists and technology giants, urging him to address the skills gap. It urged the government to work with educators, and industry to develop practical support for teachers of young children, embedding STEM skills within their existing lessons. The letter drew attention to the increasingly important role these students will play in the coming decades, as they tackle the global challenges posed by the ambition to reach net zero and meeting the pledges made at COP26.

Apart from depriving young students of future opportunity, the skills gap will hinder the UK’s global competitiveness as the 4th Industrial Revolution takes root. While remaining open to grassroots collaboration with governments and educators, business must take action to alleviate the imminent impacts of labour shortages.

Closing the gap between expectation and reality when it comes to training on the job is now key. Investing in upskilling the existing workforce and providing digital training opportunities that enable career progression will help to fill existing gaps in the workforce. It will also serve to diversify those able to compete for digital jobs. With the cost of education rising among higher-education STEM subjects, and existing high-level candidates experiencing a highly competitive job market in which they have the upper-hand – opportunities for success are skewed.

The UK government has recognised this urgent need and recently announced the launch of free courses to upskill 4,000 working adults, enabling them to upskill or retrain. Sixty-five short and modular courses are now being provided across 10 Institutes of Technology (IoTs) across England in sought-after STEM subjects. This will include courses such as Artificial Intelligence, Digitisation of Manufacturing, Digital Construction, Agricultural Robotics, and Cyber Security. But this is a step in the right direction, but just a drop in the ocean.

The government, educators and the tech industry at large must come together to solve this pressing challenge – to make a real impact. Alone, we can chip away with the best intentions. But together we can solve a national challenge that hangs our future prosperity, sustainability and progress in the balance. It’s time we put the skills gap at the top of the agenda, for everyone’s benefit.

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