Plugging the STEM skills gap – why careers awareness is key

By Jennie Harland

Monday 24 March 2014

As National Science and Engineering Week has just finished for another year, it seems like a good time to reflect on the progress being made to address the ongoing issue of skills shortages in the UK’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sectors.

There are a number of factors contributing to this issue, though as outlined in an NFER paper from this time last year, one of the central concerns is that young people do not have sufficient understanding of STEM career opportunities and how the STEM subjects they learn in school relate to the world around them. Recent changes to careers funding and delivery could exacerbate these shortages by further undermining the quality of the careers information, advice and guidance that young people receive.

The engineering and science industries in the UK contribute approximately £257bn turnover to the overall economy. Yet STEM skills shortages threaten our scope to develop these areas and compete to be at the cutting edge of developments in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. More than one in three employers struggle to recruit STEM-proficient staff at all levels of expertise, from apprentices to postgraduates. These shortages are particularly acute in manufacturing, construction, engineering and digital industries.

There are some signs of improvements in this position, as numerous interventions try to tackle the issues and enhance young people’s experiences of STEM subjects. Over the past several years, there has been an upward trend in the uptake of A-level physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics. There has also been an increase in the uptake of BTEC Firsts and Apprenticeships in engineering and manufacturing technologies as well as engineering and technology degrees. Further Education colleges also report increases in enrolments for engineering, science and maths.

Despite continued government focus, the issue persists and is acute for particular sectors. Growth in higher education STEM study focuses on subjects such as sports science and forensics, with little growth in core sciences, engineering and electronics and a decline in computer science. As a proportion of all graduates, those qualifying in STEM subjects has fallen slightly and almost half of STEM graduates do not enter a STEM job. Girls are still under-represented in STEM subjects and jobs, despite achieving well in STEM subjects in school.

While many young people enjoy STEM subjects and see them as important and relevant, these positive attitudes do not translate into careers aspirations. Policy changes to give schools statutory responsibility for securing independent and impartial careers guidance (September 2012), coupled with a drastic cut in funding for its provision, may also mean that young people are not sufficiently aware of the potential opportunities in STEM careers. Indeed, there has been widespread criticism of the current careers guidance available for young people.

Some teachers are also concerned about the impartiality and independence of this careers guidance. Teachers and school careers advisers may not be aware of the diverse range of options in STEM careers and the different routes into these careers, nor may they see imparting this information as a priority or necessarily as part of their remit. The increasing availability of high quality apprenticeships leading often to lucrative and interesting STEM-related careers, appear to be poorly communicated to young people, who often opt for more academic pathways via university, indicating that the variety of opportunities is not well understood. The message that there is a high demand for people with STEM skills and the breadth and diversity of opportunities available does not appear to be effectively communicated to young people as they tend to have very narrow and stereotypical views of STEM careers.

Young people need exposure to careers information in a range of ways, including via impartial and independent careers guidance, through direct contact with industry and from their subject teachers – who can impart messages and enthusiasm about how the subject relates to the real world and provide a sense of the breadth of applications of the subject. Furthermore, careers information and guidance on learning pathways needs to be available earlier; some young people are limiting their options too early because they do not have the right information. However, encouragingly, recent changes to statutory guidance to schools regarding providing careers guidance has extended the age range to which this duty applies to include Year 8 and Year 13 (2013 Statutory Guidance) and schools and colleges are currently waiting for forthcoming further guidance from the DfE (in response to a report by the National Careers Council on the current provision of IAG).

Ensuring that young people are aware of the opportunities available to them – that they have the information to make informed choices about their futures – is key to both ensuring that young people can be supported to achieve their potential and enter rewarding and interesting careers and ensuring that the UK STEM economy can benefit from the talent and skills developed in our schools.