STEM – How to fix the UK’s skills shortages
I did a podcast earlier this week that you will see broadcast and available from roughly the end of January 2023. One of the questions I was asked was how do we attract more people into careers in STEM.
STEM being Science Technology Engineering and Math’s if you are not familiar with the acronym.
The STEM situation in the UK
Currently the UK has chronic skills shortages in the STEM sector. These shortages have compounded over the last couple of decades. Furthermore, these skill shortages will only get worse unless things change. The longer term result on the path the UK is heading in is that companies will simply reduce their UK workforce and put their STEM departments abroad. This outcome would be catastrophic for the UK economies long term outlook.
How did it get to this?
For a country to operate it needs a level of infrastructure in place. That infrastructure with investment and development can act as a foundation for other industries, wealth generation via profit and further investment into the UK from abroad. If done well you have an economic powerhouse at play over time. The UK has done this successfully for well over a century and since the 1980’s has seen significant economic growth.
However this wealth was built on an infrastructure designed, built, maintained and improved by the STEM sector. A sector which was always a healthy breeding ground for yet more people to operate within.
The downfall for me began in the 1990’s when our education sector was shook up by Tony Blair’s “Education, Education, Education” speech. In itself, the concept behind the speech was right but it began a series of events that have led us to where we are now.
Until that point apprenticeships were commonplace. University was still for the select few. And social media was an alien term yet to be conceived.
However, under New Labour, University became open to all. And today we see around 50% of people leaving education with a degree. What we also see is that less and less people have gone the apprenticeship route because they went the University route instead. Some would argue that this is a good thing. And I myself would have told you when I achieved my degree the same thing.
But, and I am self-depreciating here, what realistic use is my Media Degree from the University of the West of England (yes, it’s in Bristol but not the University of Bristol as it’s the other one) to the UK? The truth is I qualified in something seen as more prestigious than an apprenticeship because it contains the word degree but of absolutely no use in the real world in truth.
The UK Education system
That is the problem with the UK’s education system. Schooling is about persuading kids toward the University route. Our entire education system is based on academic, not practical studies.
The issue being that kids are taught countless hours about Shakespeare and the Tudors but little to nothing about the benefits of a career in Engineering for example. Is that really the best use of their time? As interesting and as culturally auspicious as they may be it is counter intuitive.
The UK’s education system not only seems to be more about academic qualifications and promoting a University education, but also about giving individuals prestige rather than supplying a workforce for the UK’s economy and infrastructure.
The Change needed
The Secondary education system desperately needs to be overhauled. Subjects and topics need to be refined and STEM subjects need to be included in 25% – 33% of students education as a practical lesson. In more populated areas secondary schools should be divided into Science, Engineering and Technology specialist schools where in that area that school is known to be the Science school for example.
Secondary school work experience should be 1 day per week for years 10 and 11. Apprenticeships should have their minimum pay increased dramatically rather than paying less than a shelf stacker in a supermarket. After all how are you going to encourage people into Apprenticeships by paying the lowest of the low in wages? Talk about a daft tactic!
Finally University education should be restricted to only those who are the top 20% of students. And Universities should be adapted to be work places for companies who want an incentive to train students in apprenticeships and trades to supplement both parties incomes and benefits.
Finally to fill the immediate skills gaps Visa restrictions should be minimal for foreign skilled workers. And foreign investment should receive a tax discount to encourage it.
Why has none of this happened?
The reality is the voting public are not going to decide what party to vote for on this stuff. It’s not a major talking point. If you’re a political party the difference in getting voted in or not has nothing to do with the education system. Therefore, the powers that be in government have little incentive and no interest in doing anything about it. And that really is worrying.