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Mind the gap!

12 April 2018

Mary Hunter, managing director of Columbus UK, explains why industry needs to nurture the next generation of STEM students to help address the skilled workforce shortage and talks about how community outreach programmes can play a key role. 

Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency indicate the number of postgraduate and undergraduate students opting for a STEM field has seen only a modest rise in recent years. This poses a question. Are organisations in STEM industries doing enough to support prospective students of all age ranges, backgrounds and genders.

The UK currently draws heavily on overseas talent in technical industries, yet a critical shortage of skilled workers remains. Surveys from late 2017 indicate 75% of businesses in the manufacturing sector struggled to recruit suitably qualified employees for skilled positions, and this issue is set to have a knock-on effect for the growth and order prospects of many manufacturers. 

Bridging the talent gap
There is a clear need to address the problem at source. The number of postgraduate and undergraduate students may be increasing year-on-year, but if children are not engaged and inspired from an early age to pursue scientific and technical interests as a prospective career path, the skills shortage could rise further. There is, therefore, a need to nurture the next generation of STEM students from an early age.

Close collaboration between industry, the education system and even Government could hold the answer. Businesses have the skills, resources and role models to engage with children, and in turn, grow the future UK talent pool of skilled workers. By investing in the next generation, it will be these businesses who reap the rewards.

It is commonplace for many organisations operating within skilled industries to offer apprenticeships as an avenue for on-the-job industry training and building up transferable technical skills. But, with most apprentices already of school leaving age, the question must be asked - are we doing enough to encourage children into STEM fields from an early age.

The recent introduction of Code Clubs and similar extracurricular activities at primary schools across the UK provides an early opportunity to open a route to explore technical fields, and continue to feed that ambition and interest with like-minded individuals, regardless of background. Businesses can play a central role in these activities by investing technology, funding and spare time to supply, teach and speak to students.

Equally important is the need to maintain these activities throughout the education system. Interest can be lost very easily, but by building a framework of knowledge and skills at an early age, offering practical experience outside of a classroom setting and providing assistance to help students transition from education into the workforce, this can be avoided.

Small investment – large reward
Businesses can spark an interest in STEM fields from an early age. Columbus recently invited a class of 10 and 11 year olds to join us at our Nottingham offices for a morning of educational sessions about our industry.

We are lucky enough to be able to work with some of our customers such as Weetabix – a household name among children – and we were able to engage with children on the subject of STEM disciplines in a way designed to excite and inspire. Instead of discussing software development through slideshows, Columbus was able to walk a class through the journey of a staple food of UK households ‘from field to spoon’.

We already have an established relationship with this local school having donated laptops to help the children with their development of technology skills from an early age. We are actively looking to take this engagement with the local community to the next level – and would encourage other businesses, and food industry companies themselves, to follow this lead to ensure we have an enthusiastic and inspired workforce to call upon in the future!

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