By Joanne Dewar, Chief Executive Officer at Global Processing Services
Somewhere along the way, most of us realise that STEM is a shorthand way of saying Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths. What most of us never realise is just how much this little acronym encompasses. Each of these four disciplines is broad, varied and rapidly growing in many new directions.
According to a report commissioned by EDF Energy, STEM jobs are predicted to grow by 6% in the UK by the year 2023, compared to just 3% across other industries. Graduates in STEM are also amongst the highest-paid in the UK. Despite this, the STEM fields suffer from a major shortage of skilled workers. Research from STEM Learning shows that 89% of STEM businesses are struggling to find the right employees. This shortfall is costing around £1.5 billion a year. Until now, many employers have relied on the EU to source their new recruits, but this is likely to become more difficult or even impossible after Brexit.
This topic has been particularly close to home. My 13 year old daughter has recently confirmed her GCSE options and has decided against Computing. Despite her proximity to the excitement and opportunity brought by my career choice, she can’t get over the dry textbook definitions of networks and memory and looking over her shoulder, I can’t blame her.
Unfortunately, there is nothing in her classwork that connects to real life creative problem solving, let alone how the fintech revolution is transforming everyday activities. If the curriculum started with building an app, with all the real world considerations such as UX and time to market, the response could well have been different.
So where do I think we are going wrong? Before we can find a solution, we have to be sure we understand the problem.
Young people can’t connect with STEM
What do we think of when we think of STEM? Even today, the stereotype of nerds in lab coats persists. We reduce the vastness of STEM to maths problems, chemical reactions and complex, impenetrable terminology. If we grown-ups still struggle to look past this stereotype, imagine how difficult it must be for our children.
According to a study from Randstad US, 49% of children say they don’t know what kinds of maths jobs are available to them, while 76% don’t understand what engineers do. 87% think that STEM graduates work at companies like NASA, while only 40% can imagine STEM workers at a consumer-facing brand like Instagram.
It’s clear that children and young people aren’t given the means to understand how diverse STEM actually is. It is difficult for them to be inspired by STEM, because they can’t see a connection between the subjects they study at school and the kind of fun, interesting jobs they’d like to have in the future. Some teachers delivering Computer Science in classrooms are not doing this as their primary discipline and the results can be felt with their delivery lacking engagement and inspiration mainly due to lack of confidence on the subject.
STEM has a gender problem
Further details from the Randstad study reveal that only 22% of young women single out technology as a favourite subject, compared to 46% of boys. This bears out in the UK: research from the University of Roehampton reveals that there are now 30,000 fewer girls taking computing-related qualifications at Key Stage 4 than there were in 2014. Meanwhile, findings from Engineering UK show that just 20.5% of the engineering workforce are women.
This worrying tendency continues even as we try to eliminate gender stereotyping across education. Young women are not provided with the right channels or tools to engage with STEM. Crucially, they have hardly any role models to inspire them. The few modern STEM icons we have, from Mark Zuckerberg to Elon Musk, are all men. They also mostly represent a single aspect of tech. Female STEM icons working outside tech, like Baroness Susan Greenfield for example, are decidedly less famous, despite their outstanding contributions.
STEM educators and graduates aren’t properly supported
Students of any gender won’t be able to take up STEM if not offered with the right opportunities. Research from the Royal Society shows that 54% of secondary schools in England did not offer a Computer Science GCSE from 2015-16. This is due in large part to a lack of skilled teachers. 44% of secondary school teachers surveyed by the Royal Society admitted that they did not feel confident teaching the later stages of the computing curriculum. It’s clear that teachers need more access to continued professional development in order to keep up.
At the same time, the UK government’s recent Wakeham Review revealed that graduates of certain STEM disciplines can’t find work because they don’t fully understand how their skill-set translates into the labour market. A Computer Science student might not realise their skills would be a great fit in the world of finance, for example. If their professors aren’t up to date, they may never consider opportunities at fintech companies like Global Processing Services.
STEM students are not provided with clear pathways to employment, or even a holistic skill-set. When questioned for the Wakeham Review, some prospective employers complained that STEM graduates haven’t developed enough ‘soft’ or transferable skills along the way. Employers were also disappointed that STEM graduates haven’t had access to internships or real-life work experience.
As we can see, there are many reasons why STEM needs a rebrand. The problem could seem insurmountable. Luckily, we can find hope when we see the rebranding process in action.
Finding solutions through STEM success stories
When it comes to solving the STEM problem, we already have a few great examples we can all learn from. Take the People Like Me scheme, for example. Developed by the WISE Campaign, this initiative aims to get more girls taking STEM A-Levels. Stemettes is another organisation doing great work getting girls of all ages into STEM. Both initiatives attempt to engage not only the students themselves but also their schools, parents and prospective employers. Things they’re doing right include:
• leveraging social media to reach young people on the platforms they use most often
• promoting the use of “girl friendly” and accessible language
• providing STEM teaching guides and training sessions for schools
• partnering with companies to train their employees as STEM outreach ambassadors
• educating parents on how to support their children
• hosting lively, interactive events where STEM is brought to life in creative ways
There are plenty of opportunities for young people to engage with STEM – we just have to get them to realise that. First, we need to provide them with access and resources in the form of well-trained teachers and clear, diverse career tracks. Then we can begin to inspire them. We can do so by speaking to them in terms of human, emotional connection. With the right words, we can show them how to achieve their dreams with STEM. We can share with them the beauty, excitement and world-changing potential STEM has always possessed.