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Careers in STEM

Following the dash for media studies and dancing degrees and the concerted roar of disapproval from UK employers, the British Government is actively encouraging young people to embrace careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). According to the National Science Centre, those with STEM qualifications are better prepared for employment in a wide range of non-STEM fields, as well as due to the general analytical and numerical skills involved. Now there’s a surprise! Many employers recognise this and pushed for greater recognition of its importance, so it could help to give a CV enough to get past the first stage. Writing in The Director, CEO Steve Holliday emphasised how the nation is educating pupils out of STEM, and thereby reducing the number of young candidates worthy of the best jobs on offer.

Let’s start back at school. Any teacher worth their salt ought to be delighted to see one of their pupils take a strong and active interest in the subject they teach, so science, maths and technology teachers should focus extra attention on these pupils perhaps by informing them of external opportunities to become involved in STEM-based events for young people, or simply by passing on literature to them regarding STEM careers and further/higher education opportunities. Early indicators of potential to enter the STEM field is the tendency to disembowel old mechanical items to see what’s inside and how it works. Both my brothers did this when they were young, leaving a trail of redundant cogs, springs and nuts around the house. One made a very successful career in technology. The other used his highly analytical brain in law and is a force to be reckoned with in the field of commercial property conveyancing to this day.

STEM subjects involve analysis and problem-solving, so can be particularly attractive to various employment sectors (HR consulting is one that springs to mind!),particularly those that view their business or organisational model as a science rather than an art.

Parents can often be a bit overwhelmed by a child who has big ambitions about this sort of career particularly if they are not very ‘sciencey’ themselves. How do you encourage your son or daughter to get involved in something you don’t understand yourself? The best thing to do is to research it, ask friends, maybe look for event opportunities online, and most of all talk to the teacher. Make parents’ evening a joint effort between yourself and ‘Mr. Smith’ to build up career options for the child who looks to both of you for answers and experience.

It’s good news that more employers are recognising the importance of apprenticeships, so whilst some STEM students fit into the university model quite well (particularly maths, medicine and some engineering),others do not get on with it at all and prefer a much more practical approach to further learning rather than the university focus on academic theory which often still dominates all uni-based subjects.

The government itself needs people with STEM-based qualifications. Obviously the Treasury and Department for Business require good understanding of mathematics and economics. The Department for Energy and Climate Change recruits geographers and scientists, the Department of Health needs good understanding of scientific matters – particularly biology, medicine and medical technology – whilst the Ministry of Defence (including its surrounding organisations like the Defence Science Technology Laboratory and the Defence Equipment and Support section) requires good engineering and technological understanding (along with numeracy for budgets). Such subjects are also desired by GCHQ who have a larger budget than MI5 and MI6 combined, and have recently started taking on apprentices as well as graduates. For British students, the intelligence services are of course more accessible. Naturally a career in teaching is also an option for a lot of STEM subjects.

These are merely a few public sector examples, and plenty of private sector firms from the pharmaceutical industry to engineering, aerospace and defence companies desire a good background in STEM. Formula 1 teams are even employing mathematicians to create their ‘pit stop’ strategies.

We need to see greater engagement between schools, universities and firms looking to recruit people from STEM backgrounds. If companies actively seek to go into schools, VI Form colleges and universities, they are unlikely to be turned away. Many schools encourage pupils to look for work experience, but so many end up in a shop, a café or a warehouse regardless of what they actually want to try. Companies looking to take on apprentices should actively offer work experience to schools in their area for STEM pupils, and could build strong partnerships with universities rather than simply going in for a day’s recruitment fare. In the end it is business that will benefit from taking on the right talent.

A final piece of advice to companies would be to ensure that apprenticeships and degrees are not viewed as unequal. Whilst universities have helped to return engineering to its rightfully high status, conversely many good students with a highly practical bent do not work well with the university set-up and therefore may risk being viewed unfavourably when compared with someone with a degree.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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