This is a guest blog by Pete Baxter, vice president and head of Autodesk UK.
The lack of STEM skills in the UK is a topic that is continuing to make new headlines. Just recently the Labour party took to social media stating that by 2020 the UK will need 780,000 trained engineering professionals in order to meet industry demands, yet we are currently only training less than half that number. While this growth in demand is a good sign for the industry, it is concerning that we are not on track to fulfil this need for skilled workers.
Of course this problem is not just limited to engineering; at the beginning of the year Semta (the sector skills council for science, engineering and manufacturing technologies) claimed it faced a shortfall of 80,000 workers within the next two years alone. In March the CBI called for major action to be taken to address a STEM skills vacuum.
So it was encouraging to see from our recent research that over half (52%) of 11-18 year olds want to pursue a career in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Digital Arts and Maths) related industries. Note that the ‘A’ that has snuck in here stands for digital arts, an area arguably as important to our future economy as science, technology, engineering and maths – just look at the strength of the UK film, gaming and visual effects sector as evidence of this.
We’ve all heard and shared the concerns about the appetite for STEAM skills amongst the next generation. The various arguments go that: schools want to focus on ‘easy’ subjects to get up the league tables, students themselves would rather do ‘less challenging’ subjects, and even those pupils that do show an interest in STEAM subjects will ultimately end up getting swallowed up by the financial sector as they look for higher salaries.
While there may be grains of truth in some of these arguments, it is great to see that there is actually a real enthusiasm for careers in these industries amongst the next generation. If we as a country can nurture this enthusiasm within our classrooms we can develop the skilled workforce we need to succeed in the future. But this is where the potential problem lies. In the same piece of research more than half of pupils (57%) said a lack of access to technology is stopping them from using more of it in the classroom while a third (33%) also said they don’t feel their school knows enough about new technology.
There are some fantastic examples of schools and higher education establishments in the UK doing amazing things to inspire their pupils in STEAM subjects. A secondary school like East Barnet is a great example of how innovative teachers can expose students to engineering and design principles using technologies like robotics and 3D printing in a classroom setting. In post-secondary education, students at New College Lanarkshire have benefited from receiving the highest level of training combined with access to industry leading software to progress into a range of industries from oil and gas to aerospace to ship building to media and entertainment.
However if we really want to create the skilled workforce of the future we need to provide secondary school students with regular hands-on access to highly visual and creative tools and technologies, while older students need the opportunity to master professional tools and techniques to ensure they hit the ground running when they begin their STEAM careers. This is part of the issue, and one Autodesk is helping to tackle by providing free access to every secondary and post-secondary institution in the UK.
In addition, industry leaders also could and should do more to open the eyes of the younger generation to the various opportunities that careers in STEAM related industries offer. More needs to be done for example to highlight the variety of roles and skills required within industries such as construction or engineering. Technological advances are opening up new career possibilities that might not have existed years ago, potentially appealing to a generation more interested and skilled in technology than previous ones.
Advances in accessible 3D design and fabrication technology are disrupting design, engineering and entertainment professions as we know them. The rise in mobile and cloud technology has also made it possible to design anywhere, at any time. However, the progress that we have seen technology make in the commercial world needs to find its way into today’s classrooms. Until we succeed in bridging this gap, stories on shortages of STEAM skills may continue to be the norm.