We live in a fast-paced world in which people increasingly demand answers, cures and innovations to make our lives that bit easier. We depend upon certain skilled individuals to find all of these solutions but sadly, there is a worrying shortage of people who possess vital qualifications in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths - known as STEM skills.
STEM sectors are critical to British and global economies. They are drivers of productivity; helping Britain to keep a competitive edge. They also support high-tech manufacturing, innovation, scientific enquiry and research, according to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES). Yet employers are struggling to find sufficiently skilled people to fill their vacancies.
Consequently, there are millions of vacant positions around the world, slowing down business growth. Therefore, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has said that in times of "intensified global competition", it is important for countries to "work hard to maintain a knowledge and skills base that keeps up with changing demands".
How can the shortage be addressed?
Explore new ways of learning
Poor educational performance can negatively affect economic development, so it seems addressing the shortage must begin in the classroom; focusing on the way subjects are taught. A good starting point may be to change the way learning is done, making the most of hands-on projects that allow students to put their STEM skills to work in the real world.
Follow China's example
According to the OECD's 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report, China - Shanghai in particular - boasts a high percentage of pupils with STEM skills. The report attributed Shanghai's success to a system which was not only inclusive but expected high performance. Additionally, China increased teacher pay, improved standards and gave students a say in the curriculum. Perhaps these are steps that could be emulated elsewhere?
Naturally, the government must take some action. Providing greater funding for schools and better resources to aid the teaching of STEM subjects would undoubtedly have benefits; enabling new techniques to be tested. Also necessary is a stronger emphasis on the varied career options available to those with STEM qualifications, in addition to current initiatives that encourage employers to accommodate apprentices and interns.
Engage and make relevant
The long-held myth that skills like maths won't be required later in life, or that science can be stuffy, need to be dispelled. Finding exciting and practical ways in which to demonstrate the use of STEM skills in action could go a long way in altering opinions and inspiring young people.
Schools might like to take a leaf out of the London 2012 organising committee's book. Those with STEM skills created much of the necessary equipment and infrastructure for the upcoming Olympic/Paralympic Games. The committee wants to use this as inspiration, helping to engage the next generation of Britain's engineers/scientists by creating projects and competitions. It is hoped this will encourage them to develop their STEM skills; using them to create a worthwhile career.
Get STEM graduates in the right jobs
Conversely, the UKCES's 'Supply of and demand for high-level STEM skills' report suggests that a shortage doesn't exist - it's just that STEM graduates are working in jobs outside of the industry.
The number of people with high-level STEM skills in the workforce and the number of roles requiring said skills, the report found, were roughly proportionate. However, there is a misalignment in the types of occupations STEM graduates fill, with 40 per cent in 2008/09 entering a non-STEM occupation. Evidently, wages are not to blame - STEM graduates working in STEM roles earn more than those in non-STEM occupations. We simply need to improve the way these skills are being utilised.
Regardless, the fact remains that many important vacancies are not being filled. The reality is that steps must be taken to ensure healthy growth of local and international economies, which will work well with the ongoing evolution of exciting innovation.
Author: Elizabeth Smythe
Date Written: 01 May 2012