Closing the STEM skills gap

Members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee and experts in STEM subjects have met in Birmingham to discuss the shortfall in STEM skills and the initiatives needed to bridge the gap.

The UK faces a shortage of talented graduates in areas of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), with nearly half of STEM graduates eventually going on to take up employment in non-STEM areas.The Science and Technology Committee launched an inquiry in 2016 and invited written evidence on measures that organisations, businesses, schools, colleges and individuals have taken to close the STEM skills gap.As a result, the first evidence session chaired by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee was held in Birmingham in March 2017 and brought together a panel of experts with the aim of evaluating the effectiveness of past measures and preparing for the future.Giving evidence at the hearing were Yvonne Baker, chief executive of STEM Learning; Paul Jackson, chief executive of EngineeringUK and Big Bang Education; and Philip Pratley, trade and external relations director of Leonardo UK. Five members of the Science and Technology Committee were also present: Stephen Metcalfe, Victoria Borwick, Dr Tania Mathias, Carol Monaghan and Derek Thomas.Paul Jackson began by explaining that the gap doesn’t exist in every area of STEM. “The gap that we are seeing is in areas such as engineering, digital, physical science. There is not the gap across every aspect of STEM, and I think that is pretty important. We are seeing a gap of upwards of 20,000 graduate-type skills, so level 4 and above. The education system is not changing positively in encouraging people to study science and maths through to 18.”

Changes to STEM curriculum

Yvonne Baker added that there are two problems with the way the curriculum has changed, and is changing, in the UK. “First of all, it takes quite a long time for change to come in. The other part is that there has been so much curriculum change over the last few years and what most of the teachers and the head teachers you talk to want is curriculum stability.”Philip Pratley agreed. “We do not understand the school environment or the recent changes in education well enough. Engineering moves very fast and technology moves fast, but education moves very fast. While we are busy trying to identify the next generation of AI, we are not concentrating on the way education has moved.”
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Gender inequality

Not only is there a gap in STEM skills, but there is still a long way to go in educating females about the benefits of a entering a STEM industry. “We have a responsibility as the advanced engineering sector to engage more closely with education and we also have a responsibility to address the imbalances, particularly the gender imbalance,” said Philip Pratley. “The hashtag #9PercentIsNotEnough carries a very important message. We do not have enough women in engineering and that is something that we, too, need to address.”A further issue in terms of gender inequality is that many will take career breaks to start a family. Yvonne Baker stated that only “10 per cent of new registrants for engineering registration, chartered engineers, are females, but there is a high attrition rate in their late 30s, 40s, when they maybe take career breaks. We are not holding on to them and that is a really big issue that we need to think about.”Paul Jackson added, “We have done some work looking at other countries, and looking particularly at the proportion of young women who go into engineering, and ours is the lowest in Europe. It ranges from our level up to a maximum of about three times in other countries.“We looked specifically at Italy, Sweden and Ireland for comparison, looking at countries that had done a lot to encourage women to go into engineering and some countries that had done precious little. The key factor appeared to be that the broader education systems that run in pretty much every other country that allowed those young women to make a later choice about their career kept the possibility open.”

The impact of Brexit

When asked if Brexit was going to have an impact, Philip Pratley replied, “I don’t know. It presents a vulnerability to the engineering profession. The percentage of international students within the engineering first-degree community is already significant but of special note is the very high percentage of international students at postgraduate level.“We require, as a UK engineering sector, just over 100,000 graduate-level engineers per year at level 4. The first 40,000 are UK nationals coming out of the higher-education or higher-apprenticeship sectors. The next 40,000, engineers working in the UK engineering sector, are international engineers. They are non-UK nationals. The 20,000 above that is the gap. Even allowing for the numbers that we currently take internationally, in effect they double the population of engineers entering the UK engineering sector every year.”

Are we starting too late?

MP and committee member Derek Thomas added an example from his own experience. “When Tim Peake launched himself into space, into the space station, I went along to the Science Museum; fantastic atmosphere, 13,000 children. I then went back to my office and phoned 11 primary schools in my constituency and none of them had watched the launch, which I was really sad about because when I was young I remember the launches and they were good things.
So why are our young children not inspired by science and technology? Philip Pratley believes it can be the parents. “We work with schools to provide material into families days and careers evenings that gives the parents the confidence of knowing that engineering is a credible and genuine career with huge opportunity rather than perhaps the more stereotypical view they had before.”Paul Jackson added that it can be the teachers that curb the children’s interests. “I would have to pick teachers in the English system because they influence on subject choices. Where we do not have sufficient maths and physics teachers, or the awareness of how those subjects are being used outside in industry, they have a very significant impact on the subject choice. We need to have a world-class science education system.”Yvonne Baker added that the abolition of Key Stage 2 SATs in science was perhaps not a positive decision. “Unfortunately what that has done in some primary schools – I am not for a minute suggesting all, but in some – is relegate science in people’s minds.“It is not relegated in DfE’s mind or in Ofsted’s mind … but in the minds of the head teachers, in some head teachers’ heads, it has been relegated down to maybe a science week, maybe at specific times. Part of that goes back to the need for continuing subject-specific development for primary teachers because a lot of them are not confident in those subjects.”For related news and features, visit our Education & Schools section.Access hundreds of global services and suppliers in our Online DirectoryClick to get to the Relocate Global Online Directory  Get access to our free Global Mobility Toolkit Global Mobility Toolkit download factsheets resource centre

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