Wherever you look and whatever you read, we’re being told the same thing: with the skills gap costing our economy £63 billion a year, STEM and digital skills are essential to the UK’s future growth, both within technology firms and across virtually all other sectors.
Despite this, businesses are still concerned about a lack of the right skills and talent coming into the workplace. So much so, over a fifth of UK businesses saying the factor preventing them from responding to digital disruptors like Amazon or Uber is a lack of talent.
But it doesn’t stop there.
The same study also predicted that 44 percent of UK organisations will not exist in their current form by 2021, which means we need to be thinking now about how we can equip the workforce adequately with the next set of digital skills that will be expected by employers.
So why are we facing such a shortage?
A disconnect in the opportunities STEM can bring
With it often assumed the only jobs you can get with a degree in maths or engineering are highly technical, difficult or dull, STEM subjects continue to suffer from a long-standing image problem.
And this misconception is mainly seen by women.
A shortage of women in STEM careers is partly due to a lack of awareness of the opportunities that exist, and quite often the flawed perception that some groups, such as women, don’t belong in STEM professions.
But making up half of the UK population, the nation cannot afford to miss out on a huge group of talent.
And we only have ourselves to blame.
Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking. Historically, we have been abundant in our celebration of male achievement in STEM fields.
But what about Alice Perry – the first woman engineering graduate in Ireland and Britain in 1906? Or Lise Meitner, an Austrian physicist and the second woman to obtain a doctorate in physics in the early 20th century?
Whilst both and many like them have paved the way for girls to follow suit, it’s unlikely that schoolkids have come across them.
Whilst young boys have grown up alongside these influential men, we have failed to provide a suitable equivalent for girls and young women to look up to.
What’s promising is that in recent years, we’ve done a better job at celebrating women in these fields. Take Ada Lovelace day as a prime example of this.
An international celebration of the achievements of women in STEM, the day is all about proactively increasing the profile of women in STEM and in doing so creating role models who will encourage more girls into STEM careers and support women already in these careers.
And whilst it’s encouraging to see this translate into schools – especially with a new study of 100,000 sixth formers revealing more girls are taking A-levels in science, technology and mathematics – we’re still seeing worrying figures that many are avoiding these subjects at university.
Although it signals great change to see an uptick in A levels STEM subjects, it’s clear more still needs to be done to continue this momentum of pursuing STEM subjects/roles all the way through university and into the workplace.
Doing more to support women
One thing is clear – women need more than just a day to be celebrated.
Whether this is through workshops at school or women’s networks in the workplace, women need more role models and support.
And the responsibility shouldn’t be solely down to education institutions to foster this interest.
More needs to be done by policymakers, public and private organisations, and especially parents to tackle these prejudices and showcase how exciting digital jobs can be, both within tech and other sectors.
At a younger age, it’s about communicating how, for instance, studying computer science can lead to a career in design– or even technology marketing or management of a business division.
What’s more, creativity and innovation can be as important as technical skill in fast-moving digital jobs that present new challenges every day.
Then in the workplace, women’s networks are vital in ensuring that women receive the proper support and advice they need. And it’s the responsibility of the senior team to take the lead by championing women within their organisation, and encouraging senior women to act as mentors and role models.
In short – we need to be fostering female talent early on and throughout their careers. After all, organisations that fail to foster a whole group of talent properly will prevent the UK from seeing a prosperous economy.
Strengthen the UK economy for a better future
From healthcare to retail to agriculture, technology is being used to address some of the most crucial issues in the world, and solutions are becoming ever more people-centric.
That’s why the investment into computer science pledged during the Autumn Budget back in November highlights just how high technology now is on the national agenda.
As we fast progress towards a ‘digital first’ nation we need to ensure we are investing in both girls and boys at the very beginning and throughout the entire digital journey and developing the right skills to support the future digital economy.
It is no longer a nice-to-have; technology is absolutely core to the future of the UK economy – particularly as we move into the age of IoT and smart cities.
Regina Moran, VP, Head of Industry Consulting and Software Solutions, EMEIA BAS, Fujitsu