Bridging the skills gap

Materials World magazine
,
30 Apr 2017

Kathryn Allen examines recent attempts to increase the supply of workers to the UK's STEM sector.

The skills gap in STEM careers, along with schemes hoping to bridge it, have long been discussed, not least by Materials World. However, in January 2017 a study published by the Social Market Foundation (SMF) and commissioned by EDF Energy claimed that between now and 2023, UK jobs in engineering, technology, science and research are expected to rise at double the rate of other occupations and the number of graduates and apprentices is not expected to meet this demand. EngineeringUK predicts a domestic shortfall of 20,000 engineering graduates annually.  

The Institute of Mechanical Engineers’ 2017 report, Engineering: Building the Right Skills, produced in collaboration with Tata, claims that 63% of engineers think the UK’s education system will not meet the engineering sector’s needs by 2025 unless changes are made. So what is being done? 

T-levels  

As part of the Government’s Post-16 Skills Plan, Chancellor Philip Hammond announced on 8 March 2017 an extra £500 million a year to fund a new technical training system for 16–19-year-olds. Dubbed T-levels, the new system will replace current technical qualifications, thought to number around 13,000, with just 15 routes in areas such as engineering and manufacturing, construction and transport and logistics. The courses, to be implemented from 2019, involve students undertaking 900 programme hours. A three-month work placement is also incorporated, as are English and maths lessons, and four of the routes will be predominantly apprenticeship-based. 

This attempt to boost the UK’s technical training and encourage a technical rather than an academic route is a response to the skills gap. The Institution of Engineering and Technology’s (IET) Engineering and Technology Skills and Demand in Industry Report 2016 (see Materials World, November 2016, page 4) revealed that employers believe engineering and technology degrees do not provide sufficient work placement opportunities or develop adequate practical skills. Of the organisations surveyed, 68% thought the education system would struggle to keep up with the skills needed for future technological advancement. 

Professor John Perkins, Chair of the IET’s Education and Skills Panel, said, ‘We need the entire education system to equip young people with the “work-ready skills” that are so needed by employers. Increasing the opportunity for more people to follow a work-based route into engineering will also help employers build the specific skills, experience and knowledge relevant to their business and sector.’

The new T-levels could plug a potential skills shortage caused by the UK leaving the European Union. The IET’s study revealed that 35% of those asked, post-referendum, thought Brexit would have a negative impact on their ability to recruit skilled workers over the next four-to-five years. However, this had decreased from 42% before the referendum.

Naomi Weir, Deputy Director of CaSE, an independent advocate for science and engineering in the UK, said of the T-levels, ‘They may be able to help bridge the practical skills gap, if funded properly, but it is also crucial that students are not streamlined too early. The amount of funding will affect the contact time, teaching standards and kit available to students. I think employers are key here and need to be involved in the planning and delivering of these courses.’ Weir also points out that there is a shortage of STEM teachers, particularly in maths, physics, computing and engineering, which will need to be addressed. 

In response to Brexit potentially exacerbating the issue, Weir said, ‘We need EU workers to fill shortages in areas that are lacking in home-grown workers, for example the technology sector. There is a time lag between training people to fill these shortages and them beginning work, so we need immigration to fill this skills gap.’

Academic or technical 

Semta’s Engineering Skills for the Future report claims that a variety of routes into engineering should be encouraged. In the last few decades, a lot of emphasis and value has been placed on academic education, with technical training often seen as a less valid career path (bit.ly/2oY62VR). The report stresses the importance of making students aware of routes into engineering and potential career options. Weir said, ‘I think we need to move past the false divide between apprenticeships and degrees, practical or academic routes. The introduction of T-levels must be done with care to ensure that it doesn’t reinforce a twin-track system with no crossover between the two.’

Catherine Sezen, Curriculum Senior Policy Manager for the Association of Colleges, which is working with the Government to design the T-levels, also alluded to the issue, raised by Weir, that a cultural shift is needed in attitudes to technical education. ‘Careers advice and guidance has been failing young people for too long and it is vital that they are aware of the exciting range of options available to them at the age of 16, whether academic, vocational or technical,’ said Sezen. 

The gender gap 

The Let Toys be Toys campaign and The Big Bang Fair are just two ways in which industry players are attempting to bridge this skills gap by getting young people interested in technical and STEM careers.

There is an undeniable gender gap when it comes to STEM fields. The Engineering and Technology Skills and Demand in Industry Report 2016 disclosed that women account for only 9% of engineering and technology employees in the UK– a statistic that gave rise to the IET’s 9% is not enough campaign. This report also revealed that 63% of businesses surveyed do not have a gender diversity initiative – although this has increased from 57% in 2015 – and 40% of employers think that they could do more as an organisation to attract people from diverse backgrounds. 

The IET published research in December 2016 claiming that boys are nearly three times more likely to be given a STEM-related toy for Christmas than girls. The Let Toys be Toys campaign is one initiative helping to bridge this gender gap by encouraging the toy industry to stop gendering toys. They hope that this will encourage girls and boys to develop interests in careers previously thought of as more accessible to the latter.   

Tessa Trabue, campaigner for the Let Toys be Toys initiative, said, ‘When toys are gendered, the products aimed at girls have themes of beauty, fashion, caring, cooking or princesses, while the science toys – including themes of space, transport, technology and construction – are aimed at boys. When children see this divide reflected in the marketing aimed at them on television, in toy catalogues and in the toy aisles, it seems that there is a good chance they will come to believe that certain subjects are off limits to them.’ 

Considering that children’s interests, imaginations and skills are developed through play, Trabue believes that girls who do not have STEM toys may not consider a career in STEM when they grow up. 

This initiative has been successful in getting major retailers such as Toys R Us, Marks & Spencer and Tesco to take down gendered signs, as well as developing resources challenging gender stereotypes for schools. The campaign’s Toymark, indicating inclusive marketing of toys to all children, has been awarded to more than 50 UK shops. 

Much needed inspiration 

In another attempt to encourage young people into STEM fields, The Big Bang Fair, which this year ran from 15–18 March, incorporates interactive workshops, exhibits, careers information and competitions. Events such as this promote STEM subjects to school children, encourage innovation and demonstrate potential career paths, helping to provide missing information that can put young people off pursuing a career in STEM. The 2017 event saw around 80,000 visitors – 15% more than in 2016 – with an equal gender split in the 11–14 age range. 

Paul Jackson, Chief Executive of EngineeringUK, which organises The Big Bang Fair, said, ‘It is essential that young people make the connection between classroom learning and real-life application. Giving young people the opportunity to see engineering and science in action is hugely powerful, as is talking to an industry professional about what their day-to-day job entails and how they got there. Underpin that with accurate, inspiring career information and you get a potent formula.’

A collaborative effort from the engineering community, including Professional Engineering Institutions and industry players, is necessary, according to Jackson, to showcase career options to young people and provide necessary information. This is needed alongside a shift in attitude, both towards technical training and women working in STEM.