News | Published November 26 2019

Research into STEM gap validates The Richard Stephens Partnership’s concerns

Research from the Institution of Engineering and Technology [IET] published earlier this year showed that 73 per cent of engineering and technology employers have interviewed job candidates qualified in academic subjects but lacking in necessary workplace skills.

The research, collated from 700 UK engineering and technology firms, poured cold water on any positivity brought about by government statistics from August 2019, which showed that uptake of science, technology, engineering and mathematics [STEM] subjects in higher education has gone up by 26.2 per cent since 2010.

Industry experts have long been saying that more young people need to study STEM subjects for the well-documented skills gap to be addressed. Yet, even now that uptake is on an upward trajectory, the IET’s research suggests that there is still much to do.

The four directors of The Richard Stephens Partnership, a 32-year-old building engineering services consultancy in Kent, spoke about their collective concerns regarding the STEM gap in The Parliamentary Review. The major concern raised by the quartet, Andrew Paterson, Peter Smiles, Stephen Cowlin and Gerry Connor, was the lack of UK-based engineers in particular entering their profession.

As the directors described in The Review: “All of our graduates are from Ireland and mainland Europe – we want to try and establish a profile in local schools and colleges, but the curriculum has changed and there’s a lack of careers advice. It’s bad for the industry, but, moreover, it’s bad for the economy."

Now, in the wake of the IET’s research, these concerns have been echoed by institution’s head of skills and education policy, Stephanie Baxter, who feels that the key to getting more UK youngsters involved in such professions is to better advise them as to the options that are available.

Baxter said: “It’s fantastic to see an increase in young people choosing science-related subjects. However, it is crucial that young people are supported in their studies. Without the right balance of education, work experience and careers guidance, they might not be aware of the exciting range of engineering roles available to them, which in turn could be compounding the industry’s skills problem and limit their work-readiness.”

In Baxter’s view, improved careers guidance must be centred around acknowledging where the skills gaps are and supporting vocational pathways into a future career, something which may well benefit from the pending introduction of T-Levels in 2020.

Something that The Richard Stephens Partnership itself has focused on is offering career opportunities to young people fresh out of education by taking on engineering graduates in order to enhance their experience.

As discussed by the partnerships’s four directors in The Review: “We pride ourselves on our intake of engineering graduates. We try to provide them with the necessary experience and foundation for a fruitful career, and allow them to aptly develop their careers within our sector. 

“Some of them [the graduates] have completed a pure mechanical or electrical engineering degree, and we then provide the experience and hands-on teaching to refine their abilities so as to specialise in building services engineering.”

Firms who are struggling with recruitment issues may well take inspiration from The Richard Stephens Partnership’s focus on graduates and see such a move as an investment in the future. 

Something that The Richard Stephens Partnership suggested in The Review is the introduction of technical subjects in the secondary school curriculum, rather than isolating them to higher education and cutting off a multitude of students choosing to take on more academic subjects at university.

“There’s a real problem when it comes to the kind of skills our industry needs, such as technical drawing and metalwork, being taught across secondary school curricula.”

Whether this will be heeded remains to be seen, but what Baxter has called for is greater intervention by employers in the development of STEM prospects by working in collaboration with the education sector to offer a wider range of work experience to secondary school pupils. 

This, Baxter believes, will encourage more young people to take up apprenticeships or alternatively study science and engineering subjects at university, overriding the secondary school curriculum's shortcomings in making teenagers ready for work.

Baxter said: “The country needs more people studying science and engineering subjects at university and taking up apprenticeships.

"It’s never too early to start developing the next generation of homegrown talent [with] the right practical skills for careers in modern engineering, and we believe that a combination of education and work experience will help to achieve this.”

For those firms who are looking for a graduate to be the finished product rather than investing in honing their skills, heeding Baxter’s recommendations and becoming more involved in a STEM student’s development through work experience may well prove a shrewd move. Although the secondary school curriculum could be broadened to accommodate more technical subjects, with the uptake of STEM subjects increasing in higher education, the onus is now on industry itself to offer its hand to the future generation of professionals. 

The Richard Stephens Partnership has done so in its own way, choosing to take the approach of taking engineering graduates and making them work-fit in house. Now, whether it be earlier in their development or at the gateway to employment, others can play their part to help young people be ready for the challenges of the workplace and do away with the skills shortage once and for all.

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The Parliamentary Review

November 26 2019

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