STEM: Britain needs less talk, more action

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Britain needs less talk, more action to tackle its STEM skills crisis and remain competitive in the global global economy, writes Al Parkes, chief operating officer of sector skills council Semta

Flying the flag: Andrew Beel will be one of 13 young engineers representing Great Britain at the WorldSkills Final in Sao Paolo, Brazil this August. The UK needs more talent like this

For the past 30 years, we in the UK have been sleepwalking our way into a crisis. We have allowed ourselves to believe that our children should have the freedom to pick and choose what they want to learn and what they should be taught because, at the end of their education, a decent job awaits.

“Science, technology, engineering, maths — who needs it?” we asked. “Let them study what they want!” we cried. And that false sense of post-sixties freedom has brought us close to the brink of disaster.

Other nations and cultures have not been so complacent. They have had the vision, insight and drive to focus on creating the skills that have breathed new life into their industries and their economies and made huge improvements to the general well-being of their populations.

Now that the collective penny has dropped over here, we’ve woken up to the realisation that, by 2020, our STEM sectors will need 180,000 engineers, scientists and technicians every year in order to maintain the UK’s future competitiveness in the global economy. Without these skilled professionals, there is a serious risk that our economy could falter and fail.


Britain may still lead the world in manufacturing and technological advances today, but without a skilled workforce, our brilliant innovations will go into production overseas.

A call to action

Make no mistake: the time for talk is over – and having stated that, I should let you know what we at Semta are doing to actively tackle the skills shortage.

The STEM Exchange, pioneered by The STEM Alliance, is one of our newest initiatives, commissioned and funded by the Education and Training Foundation, and designed to bring professionals working in both further education and industry closer together.

Under this initiative, companies that rely on STEM skills for their competitiveness are opening their doors to post-16 educators and offering them a wide range of development opportunities.

This kind of close collaboration, we believe, will be invaluable in helping those in the teaching profession to better understand the current and future needs of industry. It will show them the technologies that businesses are using today and the challenges they face. It will shape their teaching practice so that it reflects these requirements.

Educators might get the chance to walk a shop floor, for example, or be given a personal introduction to a local business relevant to their students. They might be alerted to opportunities for bite-sized work shadowing or the chance to attend a company’s internal training or induction sessions.

In return, forward-thinking employers that get involved with The STEM Exchange will be doing their bit to increase the supply of well-qualified, talented individuals, equipped with the right skills and expertise to meet their future needs and help UK plc continue to compete on the global stage.

Get involved

I’d delighted to say that over 700 businesses have already registered to participate in many different ways. Among them are: BAE Systems, which is opening up opportunities nationwide through its UK Education Programme.

Optimax Imaging Inspection Measurement in Northampton, which is offering briefing sessions that give a valuable insight into the world of precision non-contact metrology and inspection.

Doyles Commercial Body Building in Leicester, which can offer site visits of its production unit, work-shadowing experiences and an introduction to Lean process management and its applications.

The Institute of Cast Metal Engineers (ICME), which is extending to participants workshops and training on cast metal processes.

These businesses, and many others, have recognised that it’s time to ‘stop griping and start fighting’. They’re already working with teaching professionals in ways that best suit their long-term needs. Each exchange of knowledge, expertise or opinion will play its part in kick-starting a process that could revolutionise the way this country goes to work.

So if you feel as strongly on this issue as we do, take a few moments to think how your organisation can do its bit and make its mark.

Our generation will be judged by the way we tackled this issue and planned for the future. Help us to ensure that future generations look kindly on us.

Al Parkes on tackling Britain’s STEM skills crisis

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