Solving the STEM crisis: Business's role

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Employers need to be innovative when it comes to engaging, sourcing and developing talent in order to bridge the STEM talent gap

The shortage of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) talent in the UK is a well-known problem. To counter this, former Chancellor George Osborne’s Budget announced plans to make maths education compulsory up to the age of 18 years. Given that the UK currently ranks 26th in the world for maths education in schools, this move marks the government’s latest step in addressing the UK’s STEM crisis.

Analysis and data from our CEB TalentNeuron tool, on supply and demand for talent, showed that just 14% of the working population in the UK is employed in STEM occupations, compared with 27% of the workforce in Germany. CEB’s modelling projections show that demand for talent is rising twice as fast in STEM industries as it is for other sectors.

However, new graduates entering the workforce will not close the skills gap. In 2015, less than half of students in the UK studying STEM courses at university level choose to pursue non-STEM careers after graduating. Subsequently, companies are struggling to source candidates to fill open jobs; the average time taken to fill a STEM role is 76 business days, compared to 43 in 2011.

These hiring delays have serious, and ever-growing, consequences for organisations of all sizes. As a result, many British firms, such as Dyson, are forced to recruit STEM candidates from outside the UK (e.g. India and China) overlooking homegrown talent because they don’t have the requisite technical skills.

For example, London’s STEM talent pool lags far behind most tech cities. While the number of software engineers in London reached 20,879 at the end of 2015, this figure was less than a tenth of those in Silicon Valley (274,186) and far behind Bangalore (109,813) and Beijing (37,092). Tech jobs are expected to increase by 10.6 million globally in the next decade, meaning that the UK is not developing or attracting the tech talent it needs to compete with tech hubs in the global market.

In the very long term, compulsory maths lessons and other curriculum interventions will ease the STEM skills deficit. But for now, employers need to be innovative when it comes to engaging, sourcing and developing talent in order to bridge the gap in the short-term.

Organisations need to collaborate with schools to get early years students interested in STEM subjects and challenge their perceptions of how these disciplines apply to real-life. They should also partner with colleges and universities to engage students and encourage them to pursue careers in STEM after their studies. Whether firms leverage project-based learning that get students involved in solving real-world problems and exposing them to what professionals in the field do, or using leaders and specialists to share their career experiences and journeys, these approaches help learners gain vital insight into different industries and occupations.

Traditional recruiting mechanisms tend to focus on sourcing candidates with STEM-related degrees and credentials. Qualified candidates from traditional university pipelines are often in great demand, which fuels competition to attract these candidates. Yet data shows that nearly 40% of jobs can be done without these technical qualifications. Recruiters should look at relaxing the technical requirements in their hiring profiles, and rebalance with greater emphasis on different-in-kind job experiences, soft skills, core values and alternative certifications. This will help broaden the diversity of talent pools and identify high-quality, capable candidates from non-traditional sources that may have been previously overlooked.

Once a hiring decision has been made, organisations need to anticipate development needs and provide the right support to help new starters transition effectively to their roles. Staff from non-traditional backgrounds will have very different training needs to those with traditional STEM credentials, so their on-boarding experiences and their development journeys need to be different. Hard skills can be mastered through accelerated technical training, online courses and boot camps. And softer skills – communication and influencing for example – can be nurtured through mentoring and “buddy” schemes, which will also help new employees orient to the organisation and start to build out their network of connections.

While improving education in the UK will go some way to easing the STEM talent shortage in the future, businesses need take matters into their own hands and take concerted action and steps toward changing the status quo. By rethinking, re-evaluating and re-energising their practices, companies can uncover talent from non-traditional backgrounds that will help them build diverse and inclusive workforces and deliver greater business outcomes.

Jean Martin is talent solutions architect at CEB

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