What can tech businesses do to address the STEM skills shortage?
We are living through a period of unprecedented change. Rapidly evolving technology has transformed how we live and work, creating expectations for the future that would have seemed the stuff of science fiction just a few decades ago. It’s easy to get caught up in the vast possibilities that technology offers, but we must remember that people are the ones driving innovation in this exciting new world and they are central to its success. To fully realise the potential of the technology at our fingertips, it’s vital that we invest in our people resources and address the skills shortage in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) that threatens to slow the pace of progress.
A recent STEM skills indicator showed that businesses at the cutting edge of the industrial economy, from healthcare to Artificial Intelligence and robotics, are feeling the effects of a lack of STEM skills in the UK workforce. Additional costs of £1.5bn were associated with difficulties in recruiting staff with the right skill level; 7 in 10 businesses had struggled to fill key positions.
While the UK government has rightly identified increasing the UK population’s STEM skills as a priority and a pillar of its industrial strategy, this transformation can’t happen overnight – and in the interim we face a skills crunch. As a scale-up business in the technology industry, at Egress we have first-hand experience of working hard to attract, recruit and retain the skilled employees vital to our fast-paced growth. It’s clear from this experience that the technology community urgently needs to step-up to tackle the lack of STEM skills head-on and get smarter about building our own pipeline of talent. This way we can strengthen our own workforce continuity, while also offering exciting opportunities to a wider range of people.
Early exposure is essential
Young people start making career choices at a very early stage, so encouraging them to consider STEM-related roles must reflect that. We need to start competing for talent in the classroom.
Research shows that girls in particular begin to lose interest in STEM-related careers in their mid-teens, with 58% of them dismissing the idea of a STEM career by the time they reach university. As an industry, we need to work with schools and youth organisations to promote the benefits, opportunities and satisfaction that careers in technology offer entrants from all backgrounds.
Doing this successfully means looking at what motivates young people. Today’s career entrants are prioritising quality of life over the accumulation of physical assets like cars and houses; they’re looking for “purpose, not paychecks”. However, the tech sector is strongly positioned to provide both. Technology is the biggest force for change on the planet right now, capable of solving some of humanity’s most pressing problems. Opportunities to make a positive difference to the world abound and this should appeal to young people seeking meaningful careers.
The tech industry is also growing exponentially at a time when many traditional industries are facing disruption. It therefore provides greater job security for those who have the skills to be part of it.
These should be compelling messages for young people who are considering their education and career options. We need to build awareness and keep providing touchpoints with the industry, so that when students come to make choices, we are firmly on the shortlist.
The power of undergraduate placement programmes
There’s been a common complaint from businesses in recent years that graduates lack basic workplace skills, such as time and workload management. The obvious remedy for this is experience in the workplace and this is something we strongly support at Egress.
Increasingly, universities are recognising that employability skills are at least as important as academic achievements and they’re becoming more proactive about engaging with businesses to secure work placement for undergraduates. As a tech company, it’s our responsibility to reach out as well and provide meaningful placements, which give undergraduates realistic insight into how businesses operate in the commercial environment. Even if ultimately, a student decides against a career in technology, experience in the workplace is transferable and will increase their value for future employers.
Undergraduate placement programmes are also hugely valuable for the companies that offer them; they’re where you start to identify your future talent. It has worked well for Egress, with several of our current staff joining after spending a year with us during their undergraduate studies – with even more on their way following graduations in 2019/20! Having got to know these individuals during their placement year, we can be confident that they have the right cultural fit, the skills potential we need, and are ready to grow alongside the business.
Building loyalty through training and development
Once we’ve recruited into STEM roles, we have to create the right environment to retain staff and create loyalty. Evidence suggests that high-level STEM employees are less likely than counterparts in other roles to receive ongoing training, which is an imbalance that tech companies must be at the forefront of correcting.
Today’s career entrants place heavy emphasis on personal development, so continuous learning opportunities and career progression are vital. It’s important that as start-ups mature into scale-up businesses, there is a formalisation of training and development strategies that will attract and retain employees.
Workplace training has changed a lot in the past 20 years – and for the better. Previously you might have spent five days in a classroom and received a certificate at the end, but today, training is much more hands-on and real-world focussed. At Egress, our Academy Programme offers personalised training to employees at all levels of the business, from apprentices and undergraduates, right up through management and at executive level. We typically run six-month programmes with multiple short sessions plus mentoring – a high-touch approach that’s very effective in developing both the technical and softer management skills that we need in our workforce.
Offering non-financial advantages to employees is also an important strategy for scale-up businesses trying to appeal to today’s career entrants. This includes personalised development programmes but also extends to the less tangible ‘experience’ that an energetic and flexible work environment can offer.
By focusing on promoting the tech sector to future employees, providing opportunities for undergraduates and developing our own STEM talent within the business, tech companies can put themselves in a much stronger position to navigate the skills shortage, as longer-term educational initiatives also take effect.