Last week we celebrated National STEM Day – so-called for its emphasis on the four core skill shortage areas in the workforce (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). STEM aims to use education to inspire and encourage children to pursue technical roles and alleviate the ever-growing skills gap. Over time it has also become synonymous with interactive and interdisciplinary education, with a focus on real-world application over theoretical learning. For over two decades, the government, STEM-reliant businesses and independent bodies have injected funding and investment into the education system for STEM as well as energising discussion around the skills gap in the hope of futureproofing the UK’s workforce. But has it paid off?
The answer to that question depends on your source. According to WISE, there is currently a shortfall in STEM workers of 69,000 a year in the UK, while EDF Energy’s ‘Jobs of the Future’ report predicts that there will be 142,000 science, research, engineering and technology jobs by 2023, with roles in these fields growing twice as fast as other careers. On the other hand, there has been a notable increase in the up-take of science-related subjects at A-Level and earlier this year Indeed released a report indicating that the volume of people searching for STEM jobs was reaching 90% of the number of vacancies - including a high proportion of millennials – which may suggest that the skills gap is on the decline. These statistics don’t necessarily contradict each other; it is possible that even as we attempt to reduce the shortfall by charging the talent pipeline through STEM education that the gap is increasing in response to greater demand – meaning we’re attempting to hit a moving target.
Some point to stereotypes around STEM, poor female representation or a lack of understanding of roles in STEM and what they actually entail as reasons for the shortfall. But while education may take the fall for a lot of these concerns, we believe that focussing solely on education as a source of overriding the STEM shortage may be short-sighted. Teachers are not the only ones that shape the perceptions and beliefs of the young – every single person that they interact with, especially those that they assign high value to, will act as a role model. Whoever you are, whatever you do, you are a role model to the next generation. So what can you do to impact the STEM pipeline?
1. Sign up to be a STEM ambassador
One of the most commonly cited reasons for the STEM skill gap is the shortage of women in STEM fields – women currently make up less than a quarter of the workforce in four of the five most in-demand industries, despite consisting of almost half the entire working population. In engineering, women make up only a staggering 11 per cent of workers. One of the ways that we can improve the male-female ratio and consequently increase the volume of STEM workers overall is to increase visibility and access to female role models within STEM. Initiatives such as FabFems (a national database of female STEM professionals) are helping to bridge this gap.
Mentorship programmes can also make a real difference by providing access to real-life role models and support networks in STEM. 67 per cent of women rate mentorship as highly important to helping them to advance and grow in their careers, and there is a clear correlation between organisations with mentorship schemes and those with a high proportion of females at executive level. Register your interest in becoming a mentor, either within your company or through organisations such as The National Role Model Directory or MentorNet, to give students a boost into the STEM industry.
2. Challenge misperceptions
Being an onlooker can make you just as guilty as the perpetrator, so don’t let negative stereotypes or misperceptions go unchallenged. This goes for every little girl that believes only boys are good at science, or every child who believes that they aren’t intelligent enough to pursue STEM. Accenture’s Girls in STEM report revealed that half of parents (52%) and teachers (57%) admit to having made subconscious stereotypes about girls and boys in relation to STEM. Cut negativity off at the root, and watch aspiration blossom.
3. It doesn’t end with education
As a recruitment business, we believe passionately in nurturing talent, but we also believe that learning doesn’t stop after formal education. While tackling the lack of representation of STEM in education is instrumental to the longevity and competitiveness of our workforce, it is simply not enough to rely on STEM education alone. In the first place, education is a slow burn and it will take decades of working hard against stereotypes, traditional teaching and misperceptions before we can truly reap the rewards of a STEM-focused generation. In the second, with an ever-growing gap and a consistent dropout rate in STEM amongst graduates (18-29 per cent of science, tech and maths graduates do not end up pursuing traditional STEM roles after graduating), it is becoming increasingly important to encourage individuals of all generations to pursue STEM. For this, the answer may lie in partnering with ‘boot camp’ training providers that are focused on reskilling and upskilling to supercharge the talent pipeline from multiple directions. Lorien is currently working with a training provider to support this initiative and create stronger and more diverse talent pools that can supplement immediate as well as long-term STEM demand.
4. Speak up
Whether that’s on social media, vlogging/blogging, contributing to industry magazines or volunteering for features on STEM-related radio, television or literature, make sure your voice gets heard. The more widespread positive messages around STEM are, the faster we can override stereotypes.
5. Celebrate and acknowledge
There’s a reason children grow up wanting to be athletes, actors, rock stars and models. The cult of celebrity permeates our day-to-day lives and is constantly reinforced through media presence and promotions. To increase STEM uptake it is therefore imperative to increase exposure and to create visible role models that can be aspired to, both in real life and out of it. This starts by simply acknowledging and celebrating people in STEM – talk about the achievements of Marie Curie, Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton – instead of Wayne Rooney’s strike ratio or Kim Kardashian-West’s latest ‘selfie’. Encouraging children to read books like Wonder Women by Sam Maggs is one way to bring STEM heroes to the forefront of discussion.
You might not know it yet, but you’re a STEM role model. You will influence countless prospective students, both directly and indirectly, through every single interaction you have – the blogs you share, the books you read, the comments you make. You will have the option to build the next generation up – with positive messages, encouragement and support – as well as to grow favour for STEM in current generations. Take ownership of your ability to influence, and become part of the movement that is aiming, with marksman-like prowess, to hit the moving target and reduce the skill shortage. Be a role model.