Doing the maths: How encouraging STEM students from a young age can solve the UK’s skills shortage crisis

Despite its reputation as a global research hub and its power to attract overseas talent, the UK is currently struggling with a critical shortage of skilled workers

With a large number of unfilled roles in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines, do organisations involved in these fields have a responsibility to promote positive change? Mary Hunter, Managing Director of leading digital business services provider Columbus UK explains that in order to close the skills gap, businesses need to encourage students of all ages, backgrounds and genders to pursue a career in STEM – and why the local community is a great place to start.

According to the British Chamber of Commerce, 75% of manufacturing firms had difficulty recruiting the right workers for skilled roles in 2017, which hindered business growth. While the latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency reveal that more students are choosing a career in STEM than five years ago, the upswing in the numbers has been relatively low. The real key to solving the skills shortage is to engage with children early on and cultivate their interest towards scientific and technical career paths.

Nurturing STEM students – a common cause

Education institutions play the biggest role in this, but they can only do so much to encourage students to develop interest towards STEM careers. For better outcomes, schools, the industry and public authorities need to collaborate more closely. Businesses which operate within skilled industries are especially well-placed to ignite this change – they have the resources, practices and role models to feed student ambition. Moreover, by investing in the next generation of engineers and computer scientists, it’s going to be these businesses that benefit from the growth in the UK’s talent pool.

It is already common practice in some industries to offer hands-on training and apprenticeships to help young people learn transferable technical skills and develop an interest in engineering and technology. But with most of these students already of school leaving age, we must ask if more could be done to inspire children at an earlier age to actively seek out opportunities and learn about STEM fields.

Going an extra-curricular mile for science

Extracurricular activities such as Code Clubs have gained popularity across primary schools in the UK in recent years. They are a great way to inspire children to explore technical fields early on and discuss their thoughts and questions with like-minded people, regardless of their gender or background.

This is certainly a good starting point for students and businesses. Companies hurt by skills shortages can directly influence attitudes towards STEM disciplines by devoting time to teach and talk with students, provide financial resources and contribute equipment – something Columbus has done by donating laptops to a school located near our headquarters.

These initiatives can only thrive, however, if they are maintained and extended throughout the entire education system. By putting in place a framework for continued learning development from an early age, offering practical experience outside of school and providing sufficient support to help students transition from the classroom into the workforce, we can avoid students losing interest as they grow older.

Where to begin with the outreach?

Businesses have an important role to play in encouraging student interest in STEM fields – and the local community is a great place to start. To illustrate how this can be done, last month 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 the fascinating ways technology makes every-day processes possible.

Instead of discussing software development through slideshows, Columbus experts were able to engage with children on the subject of STEM disciplines, through interactive examples. Weetabix – well-known name among children and a customer Columbus works with – was a one illustration of how a staple food of UK households makes the journey “from field to spoon.” 

But beyond donating technology and organising interactive learning sessions, we are actively seeking to widen our impact the community in other ways – and hope to inspire more students to learn about STEM careers, and other businesses to join us in doing this.

About the Author

Mary Hunter is Managing Director in Columbus United Kingdom. She has worked for Columbus since 1998. Mary Hunter has a financial background and her specialty is motivating, managing and mentoring people to deliver to their full potential whilst maximizing growth opportunities and business operational efficiencies. Mary holds an HND in Business and Finance and an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in Business Administration.