STEM skills shortage remains a concern

2 mins read

The skills shortage is often quoted as a big cause for concern for British engineering companies – and this is backed up by a recent survey.

The survey, conducted by MathWorks, asked 300 business leaders and 24 Russell Group academics their opinions on the perceived STEM skills gap. A roundtable discussing the issues was chaired by Coorous Mohtadi (pictured), senior academic technical specialist at MathWorks, who commented: "One of the big conclusions is that around 60% of the people on both sides say that there is a gap, and it would take 10 years to bridge this gap. This is not good enough for industry, they need shorter term answers." Three core issues emerged from the roundtable: the lack of young people going into university to study STEM subjects; the inability to retain engineering graduates within industry; and the quality of graduates emerging from UK universities. "There is the pipeline issue," continued Mohtadi. "There are just not enough young people taking maths and physics and going on into to engineering." Kevin Daffey, Global Head of Electrical Power and Control Systems, Rolls-Royce believes that the key is in having flagship projects, like Bloodhound, and taking them into schools. Other initiatives, like code clubs and Lego Mindstorms are also great, according to Andy Donnelly, head of development at the Cambridge Science Centre. But he added: "They will only work if there is a champion – we need to educate the educators." Another welcome addition is the UTC – University Technical College. These government-funded schools teach 14 to 18 year old students technical and scientific subjects in a way intended to inspire the next generation of inventors, engineers, scientists and technicians. But the combined efforts of electronics clubs and UTCs are not enough, accordingto Professor Anthony Finkelstein, Dean of Engineering Sciences at University College London. "Many of us have been doing this for years, but we are not moving the dial. And all the UTCs are not going to shift it enough. We need to do something else. Even if we add it all up, we are still underpowered; I would say by two orders of magnitude." The other two main problems perceived by the delegates are tied together – retaining graduates, but also making sure that graduates are coming out of university properly qualified. Having inconsistent graduate quality means that companies are having to do a lot of post graduate training to get them up to speed. Dez Cass, vice president of Engineering Continuous Improvement at SELEX ES, commented: "They need to spend two to three years before they become useful." The problem is that people are not coming out of universities with the right skill sets – not aware of the latest tools, no soft skills or not as competent at core maths and physics skills as they should be. Mike Houghton, divisional director for Siemens, said: "It's a very real problem – we can't find the graduates. The problems I see are reflected in our supplier networks. It is not just blue chips, it is also the SMEs, particularly in software. However, I am encouraged by the skills of UTC students." Getting that balance of how to get course content meeting industry demands remains a stumbling block according to Prof Finkelstein: "When we are designing a bit of engineering kit, we know that you can't do everything. There are trade-offs between cost, weight and size – whatever it happens to be. And that is the discussion that industry and academia have not had. So what we get is projections of what universities want to teach and wish lists from industry and they just pass by each other without us really engaging about how we are going to make it work."