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Why we need more young people in STEM - and how we can do it

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When I first enrolled onto my engineering degree back in the 1980s, it really felt as though my university education would provide the basis upon which my entire career would be based, with some degree of training “top-up” required from time to time as science developed, in a somewhat pedestrian way.

How wrong was that assumption! The speed, scale, and scope of the disruption we’re experiencing today surpasses anything I could have imagined back then. Skills require a continual and quite profound refresh as the world advances ever more quickly. What’s also noticeable these days is how people with the right skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) really are blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological worlds, detecting cancer with wearable tech and using data to predict weather. These types of opportunities have simply never been around before.

Yet sadly, despite all these advances coming from the STEM world, too few people around the world are pursuing these areas of expertise. The stats are astounding and quite frankly, incredibly worrying – the UK needs an extra 20,000 engineering graduates every year in order to meet current demand, while America faces a deficit of 1.1 million STEM workers by 2024. To plug this gap, we all have a duty to encourage and inspire our young people to pursue STEM qualifications and careers. If we don’t, all the progress made in innovation could falter. But how do we do this?

Bust the myths and change perceptions

In my mind, one of the biggest reasons young people are not exploring or even considering these types of career paths is because of how they think of, and perceive, STEM. Some are prone to believing that subjects such as science or maths are boring or even too difficult. This myth needs to be busted, and quickly.

So too do the old fashioned misconceptions that STEM jobs themselves are dull, and involve sitting in front of a computer or a lab for hours on end, or are confined only to academics and require zero creativity. The reality couldn’t be more different. I recall chatting to a teenager who told me how he loved video gaming but dismissed any kind of STEM career, citing it as boring. When I asked him who he thought had designed and built his beloved games, or the apps he spent hours using on his phone, the penny dropped that engineering could be cool after all. We need more people to make that connection.

STEM professionals really do work on the cutting edge; they are solving real-world problems every day and are playing a key role in shaping our future. These career paths are actually some of the most impactful and exciting around, but sadly this doesn’t seem to be common knowledge. I think as parents, family members and friends, we all need to play our part in busting these myths at home. But, changing these perspectives and encouraging more young people into STEM is also the responsibility of our educational institutions, governments and businesses.

All three must do far more to present STEM as an attractive, accessible option for the next generation, and provide real opportunities and experiences which young people feel compelled to seize with both hands.

Schools must energise STEM ambitions

But how do we start to fix this? In my opinion, there’s a lot more schools should be doing to address what is, I think, a crisis that is facing our world of work.

Firstly, career counselling in schools should be far more robust and better aligned to the needs of business. And I can speak from personal experience here – I pursued engineering on the advice of my teachers and parents, who pointed out that the qualification would bring a breadth of opportunities and the flexibility to cross sectors throughout my career. So true and this same advice has never been more relevant or important than today. So, I’d like to see more young people receive the fantastic guidance that I did, not just when the time arrives to consider higher education but throughout school and at home too. Capturing the young mind, before teenage years, is important.

Secondly, curricula must be revised to fit the twenty first century, and I believe that alongside critical subjects we should be including dedicated teaching time to discuss the broader working world and how lessons from the classroom can be applied in employment. STEM-related industries are currently experiencing a boom period which is only set to intensify according to estimates – the app industry alone is predicted to be worth $6.3trillion by 2021, while AI is expected to add $15trillion to the global economy by 2030. If our future generations are to take advantage of this growth, we need our schools and universities to advise pupils of the opportunities that subjects such as maths or science can offer. Essentially, we need to get young people excited at the prospect of working in STEM and also highlight how real and achievable the benefits of this career path are.

Thirdly, we need to get more female students interested in STEM. Take computer programming as an example – the number of jobs has grown by more than 300 per cent since 1990, yet the percentage of female programmers has fallen from 32 per cent to 25 per cent. Research suggests that if girls continue to be engaged and interested in computer science towards the latter stages of high school, they are ten times more likely to pursue college courses in the subject. Schools have a responsibility to inspire STEM’s next generation of women and encouraging girls to see themselves as successful STEM students early in the education process.

I believe our institutions should be doing far more to treat students as adults, and frankly our younger people deserve to be honestly informed on which skills are set to be in demand and the opportunities available to them. However, schools and universities cannot do this alone, and further collaboration from the corporate world will be required.

Equally, business needs to play its part too

I am frequently disappointed at how many businesses simply don’t recognise that they have a duty to encourage more young people to pursue STEM training – after all, it is these companies that will ultimately reap rewards from a well-stocked talent pipeline. It’s not good enough to expect educational institutions to shoulder the burden on their own. The corporate community must help bridge the gap between school and the world of work.

Businesses have a wealth of insight on which skills will be most sought after in the future. I think this knowledge should be much better used to help shape curriculum and careers advice in our schools and universities. These organisations should also be helping to bring the lessons to life for students, opening their eyes to the opportunities that a career in STEM can bring. At the very least, companies should do more to help our young people navigate through education and into employment. Facebook has created a series of videos outlining how AI works and which skills are required to work in the field. I’d like to see more organisations follow suit, producing content specifically for children to demystify complex STEM specialisms and make it fun and appealing – this is precisely the kind of information that pupils and parents should be seeking out.

When it comes to playing a role in the classroom, Sir James Dyson’s engineering school, launched in partnership with Imperial College London, is a somewhat extreme example. While this isn’t possible for most business leaders, smaller gestures would still prove effective. Students would certainly benefit from the mentorship of visiting business leaders, while tutors could shape their lessons and advice based on the insight of companies who are applying STEM expertise in the corporate world.

Collaboration is not limited to the classroom either. There are a wide variety of existing programmes and events that bring STEM organisations and pupils together outside school – for instance, the UK’s Big Bang exhibition introduces thousands of students to big business, exploring topics such as augmented reality and data science.

I would also like to see more organisations actively offering work placements to young people still in education; research shows that students who experience ‘job-shadow’ opportunities in STEM environments are more likely to consider a STEM career path. My experience with my own children illustrated just how hard it can be for young people to find a short term role that gives them a window into the world of work.

Too few companies provide such opportunities and yes, it can be seen as a burden for them. But business has a role to play in society too, and I can’t think of anything more useful than inspiring young people to lead fulfilling careers and livelihoods. Companies could also incorporate ‘Bring Your Child to Work’ days – these don’t need to be as extravagant as Amazon’s attempt, but organisations should at least be introducing their employees’ children to a STEM workplace.

Unlock the doors into STEM with government policy

There are currently far too many barriers to achieving STEM qualifications, and, to have a real impact on our skills shortages we need to make it much easier – and more appealing – for young people to enrol into STEM education. Student debt is a contentious topic, and governments around the world would be wise to examine the cost of a STEM-related degree to incentivise our next generation to train in areas which are plainly suffering from shortages.

Much more also needs to be done to improve the quality of technical training below degree level. If coding truly is one of the mega-jobs of the future, surely an apprenticeship would provide a new and more accessible route into the industry than a university education?

I’m personally a firm supporter of apprenticeships, having benefitted from them first hand – my first venture into the world of work was as an apprentice aeronautical engineer with British Aerospace. I still believe apprenticeships can play a key role in addressing the STEM crisis, yet in many countries enrolment is often a complex system which young people find difficult to access or navigate.

Governments should be stepping in to promote apprenticeship opportunities, but should also look to develop new apprenticeships in STEM fields such as science and coding, alongside traditional programmes for engineering. Again, this relies on effective collaboration between government, business and schools – and there is already a precedent for this, with fantastic programmes such as Canada’s Templeton STEM initiative. But these systems need to be properly planned and implemented. The UK’s flawed introduction of a new apprenticeship initiative last year has actually held back the training we should be delivering and is in real danger of giving the whole concept a bad name. The sooner that scheme is redesigned, the sooner we can successfully support millions more young people get their first break in work.

For many young people, their family will, of course, be the top authority when seeking out advice for the future, and we shouldn’t discount how valuable parental encouragement can be in persuading kids to pursue science or maths. However, I’m adamant that STEM will only become an accessible career choice for everyone when our education institutions, businesses and governments step up to change perceptions and create new opportunities for our young people.

I frequently speak with business leaders who are fearful that productivity will falter if these technical skill shortages continue, but frankly the long-term consequences will be far more severe. If we don’t all act now to inspire a future generation of STEM experts, the rapid progress of the last decade will splutter and stall. Worse, millions of young people will miss out on a wonderful and rewarding career for life.

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