Britain’s STEM skills gap: are teachers on their own?

Britain's STEM skills gap: last week's A-level results revealed a strong uptake in STEM subjects, but teachers need the support of businesses and the government to see real change.

Over the past decade, employers of engineers, researchers and data scientists have found it increasingly difficult to recruit the skills required for the future rather than just for continuing business as it is today. In an innovation driven world economy, skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) form the building blocks for inquiry, exploration, and problem-solving; actions crucial for business success. But the UK’s infamous STEM skills gap has prompted many initiatives, government and otherwise, to boost the local talent pool and making science cool.

Last week, the A-level results revealed a strong uptake in STEM subjects; a promising turn for the better.

With nearly 25 per cent more maths and further maths entries than 2010, and increased entries to other STEM subjects, the future looks bright for the next generation of talent as the Government continues its focus on increasing productivity and growing the economy. According to research from Exasol, which analysed UCAS data over the last five years, the number of young people studying STEM subjects is up by 8.4 per cent. Overall, entries for A-level computing have more than doubled in five years, and the number of women studying computing has increased by 2.75 times.

“Using STEM skills to inspire young talent with opportunities in the tech sector is vital if we’re to continue to source enough individuals for the growing number of vacancies in the industry,” says Geoff Smith, managing director UK and Ireland, of IT resourcing firm Experis. “We work with industry bodies such as techUK on relevant initiatives to encourage younger people to be curious about and choose STEM subjects. In addition, we are exploring other opportunities with partners to help our candidates continue to up-skill throughout their career.”

The gender gap in these subject areas are also cause for concern, although this year’s A-level stats suggest an improvement there as well. The proportion of women studying STEM subjects has increased slightly from 41.9 per cent to 42.3 per cent since 2012, but there’s still more to be done to level the playing field, says Exasol MD, Sebastian Darrington. “It is reassuring to see that the number of females going on to study STEM degrees is also increasing and some subjects, such computing, has seen marked increases in the numbers of women entering – almost tripling in five years. There have been various government-industry initiatives and these are clearly paying off,” he says. “Inspiring the next generation of female talent to take up STEM careers is critical to plugging the skills gap in science and technology. STEM-related jobs are outpacing all other industries and with Brexit on the horizon, this is set to increase.”

“There is still plenty more to be done to help improve the gender balance in the tech industry and the fact that so more girls are now studying STEM subjects is promising for the future of our industry. Of course, this is no time to rest on our laurels, but the time to press forward and make sure we keep these young people engaged with the technology industry going forward.”

The case for diversity is clear. “High-performing teams are non-negotiable for an organisation to be successful, and I fundamentally believe that these teams have to be inclusive of all ages, genders and ethnicities. Without that level of diversity, an organisation simply cannot achieve its full potential,” Darrington adds.

As Experis’ Smith notes, more female students are also taking STEM subjects than ever before. A higher number of girls than boys studied A-Level chemistry this year for the first time since 2004. While this is a step in the right direction, more needs to be done to inspire girls to consider careers in STEM and encourage more women into technical roles, he adds.

“Traditional perceptions need challenging, starting in early education and continuing throughout our careers. In addition, the opportunities that the tech industry offers – it’s innovative, fast-paced, exciting and stimulating – need to be better communicated to girls from a young age, so they aren’t routed down paths that are less tech-focused when it comes to their studies and future careers,” he says. “Everyone is responsible for addressing the issue, from the government, businesses and the wider tech industry to parents, families and peer groups.

Along the same lines, UK teachers generally feel the pressure to keep the STEM spark alive as students get older and fascination with the sciences begins to fade. Teachers do not feel they have enough knowledge of careers within these sectors, according to separate research from British Gas owner Centrica.

Nine in ten students said they are influenced by teachers when it comes to deciding what to do after leaving school. However, one in three teachers don’t feel adequately informed about the career options available to students today in the world of STEM.

With some teachers not feeling well-versed to guide students down the STEM path, it is not surprising that more than a third of students surveyed feel under-informed about STEM careers.

Teachers say businesses should be doing more to close the knowledge gap. More than two-thirds of teachers said they would like more information, training and guidance from business about STEM careers. Half of teachers surveyed specifically requested that businesses come into schools to give careers talks.

The Centrica research reveals yet another misperception. Two in three students and a majority of teachers believe STEM subjects are only for academically driven students, despite a number of routes offered into a STEM career through apprenticeships. 

But the research also shows that biased teachers could be influencing female students to shy away from the sciences just based on their own lack of understanding. The research highlights a gender gap around how STEM careers are perceived. Nearly a third of male teachers said that STEM careers are more for boys than girls, compared to 16 per cent of female teachers. One in four teachers of both genders aren’t aware of, or confident about job opportunities for girls going into STEM careers.

This gender perception gap reflects clearly among the students surveyed. More than a quarter of girls said that STEM careers are not for them, versus 14 per cent of boys. Why? Nearly half of all students surveyed could not think of any female role models in STEM.

New research by job board Jobsite for the ‘Talent of Tomorrow’ report shows that despite efforts to promote gender diversity in STEM, teens still believe engineering is a male career.

While 87 per cent of engineers do not agree that their job is gender specific, 50 per cent admit women are the most under represented group in their industry.

SThree CEO, Gary Elden OBE says that by addressing the future skills gap and the gender balance now, the estimated STEM job shortfall each year of around 69,000 roles won’t be as big of a challenge to tackle.

The foundation’s first initiative is the Future Talent Programme in collaboration with Generating Genius. Over the next two years, 50 A-Level students, aged 16 to 18, from diverse and underprivileged backgrounds will receive guidance and skills for a future in STEM industries.

Generating Genius CEO, Dr. Tony Sewell says the opportunity for students to take on work experience with top STEM companies will prove invaluable, with 1.28 million jobs expected to be created in Britain’s STEM sector by 2020.

“We see the sixth form as a critical landmark in making career decisions. Businesses need to think about where the pipeline of talent is coming from and pre-university has the raw talent,” says Sewell.

“We provide the key link with schools, alongside a wonderful out of school programme of academic master-classes and tuition and SThree utilises their strong STEM network to enable young people the vital work experience and employability skills they need. In collaboration, we’re able to deliver a well-equipped and prepared talent pipeline. It’s a model for how CSR becomes front and centre of business planning.”

“We need to act now to ensure we identify the key talent of tomorrow. We have a responsibility to ensure that we make career opportunities available to diverse talent for innovation and sustainable growth, and to help change young lives,” adds Elden.

“The most in-demand jobs globally are in STEM industries, and right now in the UK alone, only 21 per cent of the current STEM workforce are female. We’re addressing this with 60 per cent of students we support being female.”


Praseeda Nair

Kellen Rempel

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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