The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has called for the government to finance a cut in tuition fees for certain science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) courses, in a bid to make careers in the area more attractive.
In its Engineering our Future report, the CBI also suggested new training routes for existing workers and apprentices, along with the creation of a one-year crossover qualification at the age of 18 to enable young people to change back to STEM subjects in preparation for a related degree.
The report also said funding from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills should be used to help firms in key sectors retrain older workers, or businesses will continue in their struggle to recruit skilled workers thus harming the long-term health of the economy.
A survey from CBI and Pearson last year revealed 42% of firms struggled to find candidates with knowledge and skills in STEM.
Katja Hall, CBI chief policy director, said the growing skills vacuum is threatening the economic recovery because demand from firms is outstripping supply.
“Highly skilled workers are essential for our growth sectors and it will be those young people with science and maths qualifications who will go on to become the engineers and new tech entrepreneurs of tomorrow,” she said.
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According to Hall, the government must explore if it is possible to reduce the costs of some of these courses and create a one-year crossover qualification for those who turned away from science and maths after GCSEs but later decide they want to take a related degree.
“But it is increasingly clear that the really problematic shortages are at skilled technician level," she said. "We do have to play a long game on skills, creating more apprenticeships, but we also need policies for the short term, including retraining existing workers with in-demand skills in key sectors.”
The report also called for sixth forms, colleges and universities to set "Davies-style" gender diversity targets to help boost the number of women taking subjects such as physics and maths. Hall said there is a “shameful” gender gap in the science and technology sectors.
“The Davies Review has had an impact in the boardroom; now we need a similar focus on the classroom. There is a shameful gender gap in science and technology, so we need to transform society’s ideas of the choices women have in their careers," she said.
“Employees with the right skills to work in areas like medicine, engineering and computer science also tend to have higher earnings on average than those who don’t.”
Other suggestions made in the report included developing the capacity of schools to ensure the three sciences can be a choice for every young person, more support for the development of University Technical Colleges and Studio Schools, and relaxing rules for part-time STEM students to enable more older workers to retrain at university level.