STEM Matters: Revisiting the gap...

05 March 2018

Mark Gradwell, Consultant Editor at EPDT
Mark Gradwell, Consultant Editor at EPDT

The STEM skills gap has been a perennial problem for the UK engineering and manufacturing industries – but it feels as if a crunch point might be coming. In the past decade, the narrative around the value of the industry to the UK’s economy (and of STEM education in supporting their contribution) has been gradually – and positively – shifting...

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Successive UK Governments (and oppositions) have talked of ‘rebalancing’ the economy – making it less dependent on the City and financial services, and reviving manufacturing and regional economies.

In the wake of the global financial crisis a decade ago, former Business, Innovation and Skills Secretary, Peter Mandelson, called for “less financial engineering and more real engineering”.
As Prime Minister, David Cameron talked of a turning point, from an economy too “heavily reliant on just a few industries and a few regions – particularly London and the South East”, while his chancellor, George Osborne, promised to establish a “Northern Powerhouse” and urged a “march of the makers”. And one of Theresa May’s first actions as Prime Minister was to establish a new department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, under Greg Clark, with specific responsibility for developing a modern Industrial Strategy.

At the same time, engineering bodies, including The IET, IMechE, the Royal Academy of Engineering and EngineeringUK, have stepped up their game in terms of supporting and promoting STEM awareness, education and engagement, through a range of outreach campaigns and programmes – often working together in co-operation with one another and industry.

Initiatives such as the Big Bang Fair, Tomorrow’s Engineers, Young Engineers, STEM Ambassadors and 2018’s Year of Engineering are designed to help inform, educate and engage young people, as well as their parents and teachers – helping them understand what engineers are, what they do and the career opportunities available to them.

And while we can perhaps debate how effective Government has been at following through on fine words and good intentions, the tide does appear to be turning for STEM. Data from EngineeringUK’s annual State of Engineering report for 2017 shows that numbers on engineering and technology degrees over the last five years are rising well ahead of the curve, increasing numbers of 11-16 year-olds would consider a career in engineering – and England has seen the highest number of engineering related apprenticeship starts for a decade.

So the hard data seems to back up the more anecdotal evidence that STEM now seems to have a higher profile in the media, with more science, technology and engineering programming on television and radio, as well as more regular coverage in the press – and a hard to quantify cool factor that it hasn’t enjoyed before in recent memory, helped by STEM rock stars like Professors Brian Cox and Danielle George, and industrial entrepreneurs, Dean Kamen and Elon Musk.

In The IET’s recently published 12th annual Skills & Demand in Industry report, it reviews the challenges facing UK employers of engineering staff, based on the results of its annual Skills Survey. Of course, Brexit looms large in their concerns, with its impact on our trading relationships with the rest of Europe, as well as the flow of engineering talent into the UK, still uncertain.

Moreover, the digital transformation of production and supply chains represented by Industry 4.0 also has businesses thinking hard about the impact it will have on the kind of jobs and skills they need for the future. Employers are still deeply concerned about the continuing shortage of people with the right skills and capability to do the jobs which are being created.

Employers welcomed publication of the Government’s long-awaited Industrial Strategy, but also told The IET it is only viable if it tackles the skills gap. Encouragingly, Government appears to agree, with its white paper identifying People as one of the five foundations of productivity for a transformed economy – and key policies outlined to help improve STEM education and close the skills gap. For its part, The IET’s report makes three key recommendations, based on the results of its survey:

•  For Government: foster home-grown talent while retaining existing skills. Work more closely with educators and industry on a long-term plan to develop UK engineering expertise, while retaining non-UK workers who have skills needed by businesses, as Brexit comes into effect.

•  For employers and educators: build a flexible and agile workforce through CPD and work experience. Ensure the current and future workforce has the right skills and capabilities to cope with the impact of digitisation and advanced automation, through training and development. Improve work-readiness of new recruits by working together with schools and colleges to provide more work experience opportunities for young people.

•  For employers: make engineering accessible to everyone. To widen the potential talent pool, companies must increase their efforts to encourage people from diverse backgrounds into the profession by introducing gender/BAME/LGBT initiatives.

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