STEMming the flow: the impact of coronavirus on the STEM workforce pipeline

It is well recognised that the UK faces a shortage in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills, and that at current projections, this gap in skills and knowledge is only going to grow in the coming years.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, in recognition of this impending skills deficit, there had been a drive from across those sectors involved in STEM skills development (IT development, cyber security, life sciences and engineering, to name but a few) to encourage more people to consider STEM careers, whether as a first choice for young people leaving school, or as an opportunity for older adults looking to retrain in another discipline.

However, as with many things, the pandemic has set these efforts back, and now employers and trainers face an even greater task to ensure we can meet the skills needs for a digital, green and globally competitive economy.

Encouraging interests in STEM from an early age

Children and young people have seen first-hand the vital work that sectors such as life sciences and medicine have on our day-to-day lives during the pandemic. However, in the UK we still struggle with uptake of STEM subjects past GCSE/NAT5. And the number of those with career aspirations to move into STEM sectors is also not growing at the rate that will be necessary to meet future need.

Engineering UK published a report in 2021 which looked at the provision of information and support to children in English schools and colleges on careers in STEM subject areas. The report found challenges and barriers to engaging children in STEM subjects, including a lack of staff time and a lack of funding to offer specialist training. In addition, the report highlighted challenges around career advice and options for future career development, which were linked to a lack of employer engagement, and a lack of visible diversity and equality within the sector, which put some learners off.

Another challenge to encouraging the uptake of STEM subjects, is high quality teaching, teacher recruitment and the perceived standard of qualifications on offer.  In addition, there is a growing problem of STEM teacher shortages and a lingering perception that apprenticeships offer an ‘easy’ alternative to higher education.

A 2020 report also published by Engineering UK found that a lack of knowledge about relevant STEM educational pathways can discourage young people from pursuing engineering careers. In 2019, just 39% of young people aged 14 to 16 said they ‘know what they need to do next in order to become an engineer’ – and this figure has remained fairly static over time.

The report also emphasised that key influencers such as parents and teachers need to be supported so that they, in turn, can advise young people. The report highlighted that fewer than half of STEM secondary school teachers and under one third of parents surveyed for the research express confidence in giving engineering careers advice, with both groups reporting low levels of knowledge about engineering.

Photo by Kateryna Babaieva on Pexels.com

Supporting diversity and equality within the sector

Last year, a report from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity and Inclusion in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, looked at diversity in the STEM workforce.  It highlighted that, despite efforts to make the sector more equitable and more accessible for people from different backgrounds, the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities and, in some instances, has actually made the levels of inequality worse.

Similarly, a white paper from STEMWomen published in 2021 and updated in 2022 found that 60% of the women surveyed felt their future career prospects in STEM have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. There was a growing feeling of uncertainty and lack of confidence in the jobs market, with a proportion of female STEM students saying that they are now looking for any job rather than one within their preferred industry.

Figures from WISE published in 2019 found that, in 2019, for the first time, one million women were employed in core STEM occupations, with an estimated 24% of the STEM workforce in the UK now female.  And UCAS data provided by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) showed that 35% of STEM students in higher education in the UK are women. There are a number of initiatives which have been developed to try and encourage greater diversity within the sector, particularly among women and girls and in particular those who are disabled or from BAME backgrounds.

Stemettes is an award-winning social enterprise working across the UK, Ireland and beyond to inspire and support young women and young non-binary people into Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths careers. The project has a number of innovative programmes designed to encourage young women and girls into STEM careers through workshops, networking and mentorship schemes, and has helped 40,000 girls realise their STEM potential since its launch in 2013.

A silver lining?

One of the changes to emerge from the pandemic is the number of adults considering re-training or upskilling in STEM or digital disciplines like cyber security. Many people were forced to leave their jobs during the pandemic, being made redundant or choosing to leave and re-train to help improve their future job security.

Since the pandemic, there has been growing interest, particularly in “tech and digital” job roles – according to research by IT jobs board CW Jobs. More than one in five of all workers say they have undertaken tech training since spring 2020, and more than half of non-tech workers (55%) have considered making the transition into the sector since the pandemic.

In October 2021, the UK government rolled out 65 short and modular courses at ten Institutes of Technology across England, aimed at helping to upskill working adults in their local areas. The courses will cover subjects including Artificial Intelligence, Digitisation of Manufacturing, Digital Construction, Agricultural Robotics, and Cyber Security, to be delivered through a combination of classroom and online learning to support flexible study.

However research from the University of Warwick has also shown that attracting people to the sector, and keeping them there are two very different things; a large proportion of STEM graduates are likely to never work in the sector, and there may be more movement out of high skill STEM positions by older workers than in other sectors. The skills of those already in the sector and the development of those existing skills to meet the demand – and where possible even pre-empt future skills shortages – is going to be as important as attracting new talent.

Final thoughts… mending the “leaky” STEM pipeline

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of STEM skills in a wide range of areas, and the wider agenda to drive a green recovery from the pandemic will rest, in part, on the sustainable and consistent development of a STEM talent pipeline over the coming years, to produce individuals with the skills and knowledge to drive green and digital growth. Other labour shocks, like the impact of Brexit, which has led to a re-location of many people from the Continent with STEM skills, or who worked in the sector directly, are contributing to the high demand for skills in the sector. All of which makes the importance of attracting and retaining people in the sector greater than ever.

The leaky STEM pipeline, – a metaphor which describes how people, particularly women and people from underrepresented groups in the industry, are “lost” from the sector at various points on the route to their chosen career – is sometimes criticised as being over simplistic.  However, it is clear that something needs to be done to help tackle the number of people “lost” from the sector. This could be done by promoting opportunities for everyone interested in STEM and by driving the development of a strong, well-resourced and engaged STEM workforce, drawn from all parts of society and engaged in STEM from the earliest possible opportunity.

Opening photo by Chokniti Khongchum on Pexels.com


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