The release of the new Westworld and Humans series may have offered some escapism over recent months. But as the march towards the fourth industrial revolution continues apace, science fiction is fast becoming science fact.
As we edge closer to the technology of tomorrow, a fierce debate has emerged about whether the UK workforce is adequately equipped to keep up with scientific and technological change. While some are grasping the nettle – for example the company that has this week launched a programmable Harry Potter wand that teaches children to code – the UK’s shortage of scientists, mathematicians and engineers at such an important time is causing real concern. For pharma, medical devices and health technology companies, the ability to employ people with STEM skills is critical.
According to the STEM Skills Indicator 89 per cent of STEM businesses struggle to recruit, costing UK businesses £1.5 billion a year in additional training costs, temporary staffing and recruitment. The same research suggests half of businesses expect the skills shortage to get worse over the next decade, while the need for STEM roles will double as the sector expands. The National Audit Office has also found that of the 75,000 people who graduated with a STEM degree in 2016, only 24% were known to be working in a STEM occupation within six months.
Boosting take-up and provision of STEM education has always been a live topic for Government, underlined by its investment of almost £1 billion on initiatives to encourage greater take-up of STEM subjects over the past decade. The Government’s efforts have led to some positive results. Since 2011/2012, the number of young people taking STEM A Level subjects has increased by around 3 per cent and enrolments in full-time undergraduate STEM courses grew by 7 per cent between 2011/12 and 2015/16.
But just recognising the importance of STEM skills for the future of UK industries is no longer enough, and many have called for a step-change in the way Government approaches STEM skills. As Meg Hillier MP recently put it: “Warm words about the economic benefits of STEM skills are worth little if they are not supported by a coherent plan to deliver them.”
In a scathing report last month, Hillier’s Public Accounts Committee criticised (amongst other things) the Government’s lack of urgency in tackling the UK’s STEM skills shortage. In particular, the Committee pointed to a lack of coordination between the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and the Department for Education (the two departments jointly responsible for STEM skills policy), which has resulted in no unified STEM skills programme to address the shortage.
The appointment of a departmental STEM Programme Board and cross-departmental working group is a step towards a more joined up approach. But this will require focus, commitment and input from experts to ensure they successfully respond to the needs of STEM employers.
The unmet demand for STEM skills is likely to be further exacerbated by Brexit. Recent figures from the LinkedIn Workforce report hints that the UK is already losing talent to the 27 other EU member states, and Remain backing politicians have routinely warned of the dangerous skills shortage the country will face after March 2019.
The Brexit White Paper offers a glimmer of hope – allowing for students and young people to benefit from world leading universities and calling for a relationship that provides for UK participation in EU research funding programmes and mutual recognition of professional qualifications. But, as has been brought into sharp focus recently, this is just a preferred approach and there is no guarantee that May’s plans will be accepted by the EU Commission. As negotiations continue, many will be looking to the Migration Advisory Committee’s report on the UK labour market and immigration system for some salient evidence-based advice at the end of the summer.
For companies operating in the STEM sector the current environment means that sustained pressure on Government to prioritise STEM skills is crucial. The STEM Programme Board will be an important driver for this, but the sector should also engage wider influencers who can shape policy; for instance, the Science and Technology Committee and Innovate UK are currently driving forward their own STEM agendas.
In recognition of the Government’s pressing to-do list, the sector needs to offer positive solutions and ways in which industry can facilitate success; this could be through providing expertise or showcasing work with partners, for example universities, to increase knowledge sharing and broaden opportunities across STEM. In communicating their asks, the STEM sector needs to make a creative and evidence-based case for STEM investment.
Although the challenge to bridge the skills gap is ongoing, there is a real opportunity for companies to engage with the Government in listening mode, and ensure the future landscape is shaped to create the scientists and engineers of tomorrow.