STEM shortages threaten UK competitiveness

  • Richard Protherough
  • 18/11/2014
  • Recruitment
  • Insights
  • Candidate

Over the course of the last few years, we’ve seen an influx of new technologies which are changing the way that businesses operate. These rapid technological advances mean that IT professionals must continually adapt and develop their skill set - making a career in IT a commitment to a lifetime of learning.

However, with a worrying decline in the take up of IT at school, college and university, the UK is falling dangerously behind emerging economies who do more to encourage young people into this burgeoning industry.

As demand for expertise increases we’ll only hear more about the skills shortage within IT, but what are UK businesses doing to bridge the gap? Are companies -especially where IT is not their core operation - willing to give people the level of support they need in order to keep pace with the market? Or will they instead face the consequences of inertia?

Educating at grass roots level

It’s a common complaint that school curriculums align with neither business needs nor IT developments - neglecting such essentials as coding, and failing to prepare would-be IT professionals for the practical world of work. The challenge for the education system is not an easy one: with most curriculums taking four years to develop, how can education hope to keep pace with industry developments? The hurdle is a difficult one to mount, but change is afoot.

The Guardian recently reported that the UK is to be “the guinea pig for the most ambitious attempt yet to get kids coding, with changes to the national curriculum. ICT (Information and Communications Technology) is out, replaced by a new “computing” curriculum including coding lessons for children as young as five.”

But teachers will also require training. In support of the evolution, Microsoft has invested £334,000 in a partnership with Computing at School to run training sessions for teachers, while companies making apps or services that teach children to code have been releasing lesson guides and other teaching material.

UK organisations are finding their access to in-demand skills severely restricted, compromising their ability to compete effectively in global markets; if they wish to influence change, they need to get involved in education at grass roots level - forging partnerships with local schools and colleges to offer an insight into the IT industry, and the exciting paths IT professionals can follow. And there has never been a better time than now.

In a society where celebrity is king - and often the key to inspiring children - we’re fortunate that some of our biggest A-list celebrities are IT entrepreneurs; such as facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and co-founder of twitter Jack Dorsey. With the rise of social media, and an intense reliance on the internet and all things technological, IT is no longer the stale subject of old. It is, as the kids would say, seriously cool. So encouraging children into these areas should be an easy feat - but only if employers, educational bodies and the government are on the same page.

As a rugby coach, I see the efforts that sports clubs go to engage children. The professional players at Moseley Rugby Club are out in the community every week, bringing sport to kids and inspiring them to pick up a ball and run with it. They don’t rely on the PE curriculum alone to develop and inspire the players and supporters of tomorrow. Businesses need to be doing the same, as they’re just as reliant on the future talent pool as any sports team; inspiring children into the fascinating world of technology cannot be left solely to the education system.

Things need to change drastically if young people are to be drawn into the industry. Employers must increase their involvement with their local communities - particularly with schools and colleges - if they are to build ties and create the IT professionals of the future. Too many of today’s companies do little to inspire local children, yet bemoan the lack of local talent.

Paving the way for IT growth

It’s down to employers to ‘sell’ IT as an attractive (and lucrative) industry to young people on the cusp of carving their future careers. With technological evolutions changing the world of work by making flexible working an expected norm, IT should be positioned as an exciting, dynamic career choice that offers just as much flexibility as other industries, along with a diverse and valuable career path.

The perpetual emergence of new technologies, coupled with the struggles of the British education system, make it likely that skills shortages will continue to challenge UK businesses and the wider economy. The only hope that employers have in navigating these challenges is to increase the uptake of IT at school, college and university, draw more people into the industry, and facilitate the needs of IT professionals once they’ve joined the ranks. Otherwise, the UK will continue to fall drastically behind other economies who can nurture, inspire and develop the talent they need to succeed.