Inspiring future of STEM students today could cut the UK skills deficit

Here, Mary Hunter, managing director of digital business services provider Columbus UK, discusses how can businesses team up with the education system to help develop children on the path towards a STEM career and grow the UK talent pool.

Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency indicate the number of postgraduate and undergraduate students opting for a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field has seen just a modest rise in recent years. Are organisations in STEM industries doing enough to support prospective students of all age ranges, backgrounds and genders?

Mary Hunter, managing director of leading digital business services provider Columbus UK, discusses the need to nurture the next generation of STEM students to help address the skilled workforce shortage – and how community outreach programmes can play a key role.

The UK currently draws heavily on overseas talent in technical industries, yet a critical shortage of skilled workers remains. Surveys from late 2017 indicate 75 per cent of businesses in the manufacturing sector struggled to recruit suitably qualified employees for skilled positions, and this issue is set to have a knock-on effect for the growth and order prospects of many manufacturers.

Bridging the talent gap

There is a clear need to address the problem at source. The number of postgraduate and undergraduate students may be increasing year-on-year, but if children are not engaged and inspired from an early age to pursue scientific and technical interests as a prospective career path, the skills shortage could rise further. We need to nurture the next generation of STEM students from an early age.

Close collaboration between industry, the education system and even government could hold the answer. Businesses have the skills, resources and role models to engage with children, and in turn grow the future UK talent pool of skilled workers. By investing in the next generation, it will be these businesses who reap the rewards in turn.

Teaching STEM – it’s never too early but it can be late

It is commonplace for many organisations operating within skilled industries to offer apprenticeships as an avenue for on-the-job industry training and building up transferable technical skills. But with most apprentices already of school leaving age, the question must be asked – are we doing enough to encourage children into STEM fields from an early age?

Code Clubs – a starter for ten that businesses should build on

The recent introduction of Code Clubs and similar extracurricular activities at primary schools across the UK provide an early opportunity to open a route to explore technical fields, and continue to feed that ambition and interest with like-minded individuals, regardless of background. Businesses can play a central role in these activities by investing technology, funding and spare time to supply, teach and speak to students.

Equally important is the need to maintain these activities throughout the education system. Interest can be lost very easily, but by building a framework of knowledge and skills at an early age, offering practical experience outside of a classroom setting and providing assistance to help students transition from education into the workforce, this can be avoided.

Small investment, large reward

Businesses can spark an interest in these fields from an early age. That’s why this week Columbus invited a class of 10 and 11 year olds from Holy Cross school in Hucknall to join us at our Nottingham offices for a morning of educational sessions about our industry.

We are lucky enough to be able to work with some of our customers such as Weetabix – a household name among children – and we’ve been able to engage with children on the subject of STEM disciplines, in a way designed to both excite and inspire. Instead of discussing software development through slideshows, Columbus experts were able to walk a class through the journey of a staple food of UK households “from field to spoon”.

We already have an established relationship with Holy Cross, having donated laptops to the school to help children with their development of ever-important technology skills from an early age. We’re actively looking to take this engagement with the local community to the next level – and would encourage other businesses to follow this lead!

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

Skills gap or science fiction?

How much does UK’s workforce know about real STEM-based jobs?

Is there a widening digital skills gap? Science and tech equipment supplier, Stormline, surveyed 1,000 adults to see how much the general public knows about real in-demand jobs in gaming, technology and design.

The study meshed together some of the UK’s most in-demand niche jobs with fictional roles taken from scifi blockbusters like Mad Max, Hunger Games, Dune and Inception. The results were both worrying and entertaining, with more than three quarters of respondents struggling to separate fact from science fiction.

Jobs in visual design were the most frequently mistaken for fictional movie job titles, while roles portrayed in films were considered more plausible than actual jobs from the Government website.

>Read: ​The lost generation of digital natives

Stormline carried out this survey to highlight just how confusing STEM-based jobs can sound like to the uninitiated. The family founded business manufacturers work equipment for industries that carry out highly specialised technical work.

“We’re aware of the skills gap in the engineering industry and we’ve done lots of research into barriers to participation in engineering in the past. One thing we did notice during our research into the most in-demand professions was how unusual some of the job titles were. We couldn’t immediately tell what the job was from the title, and we consider ourselves fairly clued-up on the industries we serve,” Regan McMillan, director of Stormline told GrowthBusiness.

“For any youngster looking to choose a profession where they can help fill the skills gap, I don’t imagine those job titles would be particularly helpful or interesting.

“So we set up a study to see if people could tell the difference between the jobs listed by the Home Office as ‘in-demand’ and some of the weird and wonderful jobs from Hollywood’s scifi blockbusters. The results surprised everyone. It’s not a reflection of general ignorance, but more that the Home Office might consider optimising how it lists these jobs on its own website to appeal to a broader pool of talent,” he added.

The most confusing jobs

Job title
Real or scifi?
Percentage who couldn’t tell
Shader writer
Home Office
Guild Navigator
Texture artist
Home Office
Matte painter
Home Office
Chicken sexer
Home Office
Writer of personal letters
Organic mechanic
Mad Max Fury Road
Head gamemaker
Hunger Games
Compositing artist
Home Office
Reservoir panel engineer
Home Office
Protection engineer
Home Office
Main force patrol officer
Mad Max Fury Road
Sleep physiologist
Home Office
Rock mechanics engineer
Home Office
Face dancer
Extraction practitioner
Bio repo
Repo Men
Harry Potter

Owen Gough

Owen Gough

Owen Gough is a reporter for He has a background in small business marketing strategies and is responsible for writing content on subjects ranging from small business finance to technology...

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