Changing social perceptions of STEM key to bridging skills gap in the UK

Last week saw ther launch to the STEM Alience, an iniciative backed by industry, education and govermment to attract, teach and retain an estimated 1 million engineers,...

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Gary Stewart


Changing social perceptions of STEM key to bridging skills gap in the UKLast week saw ther launch to the STEM Alience, an iniciative backed by industry, education and govermment to attract, teach and retain an estimated 1 million engineers, scientists and technicians that the UK will need by 2020.

The alliance’s long-term aim is to improve the quality of teaching and training in subjects essential to engineering, but in the short-term, the goal is to reduce the 70,000 shortfall in STEM graduates required each year to safeguard the future of the UK economy.

The immediacy of the issue cannot be overlooked when we consider that, at current levels, it will take more than a decade to bridge the skills gap, despite the fact that the appetite for careers in STEM has actually grown significantly in recent years.

The second annual Global Millennial Survey found millennials identify STEM fields as the most important to study in order to ensure their personal success and in the UK, Technology topped a pole of 19 industries that millennials want to pursue a career in. Yet, nine in every ten companies represented by Semta, an organisation responsible for engineering skills for the future of the UK’s most advanced sectors, believe there’s still not enough being done to motivate the next generation of scientists, technologists and engineers.

So what’s the short-term remedy?

Steps need to be taken in creating opportunities to pass on those educational initiatives that have proven effective in stimulating the learning of science and technology, engineering and mathematics. This is the purpose of a new report launched by the Telefonica Foundation, which showcases effective projects promoting scientific and technological careers.

The Top-100 Educational Innovations presents the results of the Education Challenge, an extensive research project that the Foundation conducted throughout the year to identify those innovative educational initiatives that have proven results in the field of STEM education.

100 initiatives from the UK and across the world were identified and thoroughly assessed by a panel of experts on their efforts for improving the acquisition of STEM skills, activating interest and pathway into STEM careers, links to professional bodies and industry, and crucially, improving the social image of STEM careers.

The social perception of scientific and technical professions remains complex, with biases present throughout all stages of STEM study and career. This is exacerbated by stark gender differences (70% of people around the world associate being a scientist with being a man) and a lack of ethnic and socio-economic diversity in STEM fields (BME men are 28% less likely to work in STEM than white men), which is leading to ever-worsening levels of scientific literacy across the whole of society.

Fortunately, the majority of those initiatives recognised through the Top-100 Educational Innovations are taking immediate steps to reduce social and educational exclusion in STEM.

17 of the top 20 educational initiatives, for example, have made it a strategic priority to either reduce the STEM achievement gap for those from lower-income and non-academic backgrounds or target the STEM gender imbalance by supporting the total integration of female talent from school to the workplace. A large percentage of initiatives also encourage those with a learning disorder or disability to participate and provide access to learning from as early as 4-years-old.

It’s these initiatives and their potential for further growth that are making an immediate impact on the educational community. More importantly, however, they are reducing stereotypes and improving the social image of STEM; the by-product of which is an increased uptake in STEM subjects and a growing appetite for careers in that field.

Open innovation the long-term solution to changing perceptions of STEM

In early October during the TeenTech awards – designed to encourage grassroots interest in STEM subjects – The Duke of York said there needed to be a “culture of enterprise” to help young people turn technology ideas into commercial products and services.

His Royal Highness, who regards British prosperity in all of its forms as central to his work, considers it a priority to support young people in developing the right skills that make them more employable so they become economically active. The right skillset will, of course, enable young people to exploit the opportunities in STEM. But The Duke also recognises that any growth will be dependent on having an entrepreneurial economy, and for one to form, the UK must adopt an open approach to innovation. This means developing a framework that is fully inclusive and enables all those within society to become wealth creators.

To help nurture this socially diverse and entrepreneurial workforce, HRH has once again organised Pitch@Palace, which although still in its infancy, is backing entrepreneurs from all backgrounds to pitch in front of 300 business leaders at St James’s Palace and this year’s open invitation – which has called for aspiring science-based start-ups – will put open innovation to the test when it asks the public to vote on their favorite.

For the UK to retain, attract and motivate people into STEM, we must do our utmost to remove those stereotypes that prevent a rich mix of young talent taking full advantage of what those fields can offer in terms of prosperity to the individual.

It just simply isn’t enough these days to provide opportunities to learn new skills when perceptions of STEM are the barrier so we as industry, education and government, must take lead from what those initiatives within the Top-100 Educational Innovations are doing and increase the interaction society has with STEM.

Public perception of science and technology has direct bearing on social progress and national prosperity. Pitch@Palace is a great opportunity to show the public how STEM is changing and to encourage others to take an open approach in how they support innovation.

You can watch Pitch@Palace LIVE and vote on your favorite start-up by watching Wayra TV at 17:00 (GMT) on Wednesday, 5th November via

Gary Stewart

By Gary Stewart, Director, Wayra UK


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