Despite various headwinds currently buffeting the UK economy, demand for labour still exceeds supply in many areas, especially regarding STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) careers. Recruitment figures paint a gloomy picture in the UK at the moment, and the situation doesn’t seem to be improving in the near future.
The UK Commission’s Employer Skills Survey (ESS) highlights how the number of vacancies has reached 927,000 in 2015 alone. This shocking figure is surprisingly not triggered by a shortage of workers, but rather a crippling skill shortage. An increasing number of Brits are lacking the necessary basic skills to be retained and this has made it very challenging for employers to fill their vacancies (1.4 million in the UK in 2015).
It’s no secret that the engineering sector is, as always, causing particularly bad headaches to both recruiters and employers. Most people recognise how valuable engineers are to the economy, and yet searching for top engineers is like looking for needles in a haystack.
Indeed, a current study commissioned by the Royal Academy of Engineering highlights how the British industry is in desperate need of more STEM graduates each year (approximately 100,000 simply to maintain current rates), however it’s currently receiving significantly fewer than required (approximately 90,000)(TheEngineer.co.uk)
Despite the high salary perspective, not enough students feel attracted to studying STEM subjects and pursuing a career in related areas. It’s hard to come to grips with how this can be the case. In general, students tend to perceive STEM subjects to be more difficult than humanities and for this reason may be more prone to choosing subjects that they believe will easily secure them a place in universities.
In fairness to governments and businesses, quite a few initiatives have been designed to try and tackle the problem at its roots. For example, the Tomorrow’s Engineers program is, in theory, a great opportunity as it aims to promote STEM careers and help bridge the gap between academia and work experience for engineering students (Telegraph).
Unfortunately though, most of the efforts to make STEM careers more attractive have so far shown barely any real effect as they have been carried out in isolation. Indeed, it seems too few businesses and schools fully appreciate the importance of investing in these activities and those who do often operate without coordinating their efforts to other businesses.
To add fuel to the fire, Brexit will certainly raise further uncertainties in its wake. The EY ITEM Club even warns British citizens to brace themselves as the era of easy employment is over. In fact, they predict the rate of unemployment will rise to 5.4%, which will likely have a significant impact on living standards.
Nobody yet quite knows what the future has in store for us, but if Britain is somehow cut off from receiving skilled employees from abroad, the already staggering skill shortage will certainly exacerbate.
So, for those who haven’t yet decided to abandon the sinking ship and move to the Caribbean, is there still a spark of hope?
Firstly, wherever the ‘Brexit Train’ is heading, it is absolutely essential to ensure that the free movement of people to Britain is not hindered in any way. Only in this way can Britain continue to benefit from skilled foreign employees. However, this is not looking promising, with BBC News stating that free movement between the UK and EU will end by March 2019.
Secondly, businesses need to understand that they can’t always take care of recruiting employees entirely by themselves. Some roles are harder than others to fill and working with experienced headhunters can often decrease the number of sleepless nights trying to find an ideal candidate for a role.
Last but not least, it is important that businesses, government, and academia alike concentrate their efforts, now more than ever, on making STEM subjects more appealing to students, and de-mystifying the unfortunate reputation they have achieved. Though there are numerous ways to achieve this, perhaps the key area of focus should be ensuring that students leave university with more proficient skills, a clearer picture of how they can add value to companies, and most importantly; a flexible mind set.
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