The problems with the STEM shortage

Everyone seems to be talking about a worsening shortage of professionals qualified in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). Conversely, the number of STEM graduates is increasing, and a lot of them are slow to get into work. Andrew Clayton explores why this is the case.

The Government and media have, for a few years now, been warning of the impending skills crisis that the UK faces in science, technology, engineering and maths. In 2014, a report by The Campaign for Science and Engineering highlighted that there was a 40,000 annual shortfall of skilled STEM workers. Other estimates put it even higher, with a 55,000 yearly deficit in skilled engineers alone. However, despite a dip in the mid-2000s, statistics from the Higher Education Funding Council for England show the number of students enrolled on STEM undergraduate courses rose by 17,000, or 6%, between 2002 and 2013. Furthermore, between 2010 and 2015, there has been an increase in those taking ‘core’ A Level subjects, including a 20% increase in those taking mathematics. This is possibly, at least in part, down to efforts by the Government and industry to avert crisis by launching new STEM career inspiring initiatives such as the Your Life campaign, which encourages students to take Maths and Physics at A Level. But despite these recent trends, the shortages are set to continue.

One of the main arguments for the shortages is that those with STEM degrees often do not pursue careers where their technical knowledge is needed as opposed careers where to ‘transferable skills’, such as numeracy and problem solving , are valued instead. According to a 2012 study by the Institute of Physics, between 2006 and 2010, 18% of 516 physics graduate respondents were employed in the financial sector after one year. One of the reasons for this may be that STEM relevant graduate jobs tend to pay wages of around £25,000. Although this is higher than the average graduate salaries of other disciplines, some sectors outside STEM can pay considerably more. In November I received an email from the job advertising site GradQuiz, suggesting I could earn a graduate salary of around £30,000 as a Graduate Policy Advisor at HM Treasury. Although I have no personal interest in sectors outside STEM, the tendency of graduates to follow the money is hardly surprising considering the huge amounts of student debt placed on undergraduates, particularly since the new fee regime was introduced in 2012.

However, graduates leaving the STEM market should surely reduce the competition for graduates wanting to go into technical careers, yet many STEM graduates are slow to get into work, with a 6.4% unemployment rate after one year for physics graduates between 2006 and 2010. A factor to consider is where the shortages are within industry. The larger companies with well-publicised graduate schemes and large recruitment departments can afford to be selective with the graduates they take on. These companies, which are often sighted at university and national careers fairs, have multiple filtering systems that guarantee they get the ‘ideal’ candidates. Having myself applied for several such schemes, I can confirm that even before the first round of interviews, some companies pre-emptively rule out anyone without/not predicted a minimum of an upper second class honours degree, require applicants to complete online psychometric testing, and attend challenging evaluation days where candidates’ traits, including group work and communication skills, are meticulously scrutinised.

Conversely, other companies rely on recruiting a workforce that possesses more specific skills or relevant experience. Although graduates hold the relevant degree, it rarely means they have the level of skill necessary to do a particular job without further training. This recruitment method is understandable for smaller firms and new start-ups, which simply do not have the workforce or resources to run such training schemes. These smaller companies can also face the problem of having more specific, poorly understood product areas, and can often be located in far out rural areas that just don’t really appeal to aspiring professionals looking to get stuck into careers that have real prospects – big promotions just aren’t possible in small firms.

So, the solutions seem simple enough. Companies that struggle to find candidates need to advertise appropriately and provide better incentives to their target applicants. If they haven’t already, the companies that have the resources should be investing more in training schemes, and stop having the unrealistic expectations that applicants will already have the exact skills required. I also believe that graduates should keep realistic expectations as well, as the chances of getting on a graduate scheme with a major company are slim. Graduate job finding sites such as GradQuiz and Gradcracker are great to publicise graduate schemes from leading companies that ultimately generate far more applicants than places, and should not be solely relied on. Instead, graduates need to take a more proactive role in finding relevant roles, such as applying to smaller companies, which most people will have probably never heard of, that do similar work. Diversification is also key. Graduates should not be afraid to go into roles that aren’t exactly want they want in the long term in order to gain experience in the industry. It is also far more favourable to internally apply for a preferred role that may come up in the future if already employed in a related role within the same company.

However, if the UK really is haemorrhaging scientists and engineers at the estimated rates, simply finding jobs for existing graduates more easily won’t do much in the long term. The increasing number of STEM students should help, and George Osborne’s recent budget is certainly on the right track. Indeed, the Chancellor’s 2015 spending review which came out in November not only protects the Government’s annual £4.7 billion science budget in real terms, but also specifically addresses STEM issue. The main points are that from the academic year 2017-2018, tuition loans will be extended for all STEM students wishing to do a second degree, and over £1.3 billion in funding is to attract new teachers to the profession, with a particular emphasis on STEM subjects. This will hopefully lead to better quality and more specialised graduates being produced. Government investment in apprenticeships is also set to double from 2010-2011 levels by 2020, which will in turn help the smaller companies and new start-ups develop the vocational skills they really need.

Overall, I believe that the STEM shortage is certainly real and needs to be addressed on a national, industrial and personal scale. What has been done so far and what is set to be implemented in the future will no doubt help the situation, but no one should expect everything to be done for them. Every party must play a proactive role if a long term balance is ever to be redressed.

The problems with the STEM shortage

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