Posted: 18 June 2013
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The skills gap

How can we give young people a better understanding of the exciting opportunities offered by a career in science and engineering?

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The skills gap

The skills gap

Captivated pupils on a school visit to National Grid’s Energy Education Centre.

“Business needs to play its part – it is no use just complaining from the sidelines that people aren’t choosing STEM.”

Steve Holliday, National Grid Chief Executive


Half of mixed state schools in Britain don’t have a single female student studying A-Level physics.

Source: UK Commission for Employment and Skills

At the recent Spectator skills forum in London, Steve Holliday, National Grid’s Chief Executive, explained why better careers advice is part of the solution. Here, we look at some of the highlights from Steve’s speech, in which he describes how business can make a difference in this area.

As a major employer, a parent and a citizen of a country where so many young people are in danger of getting lost, I care passionately about developing the right skills that our country needs.

Globally, youth unemployment is at an all-time high. The Economist estimated that the number of young people out of work is nearly as big as the population of the United States: 331 million. Yet in a recent PwC report, 58% of CEOs polled said the availability of the right skills was a major concern for them, while a Manpower survey found a third of employers worldwide had trouble filling job vacancies last year.

The EU predicts that, by 2020, most new EU jobs will be in knowledge and skill-intensive occupations, while demand for highly-qualified people will rise by over 16 million.

Global footing

This is an opportunity for Britain, as well as a challenge. Science, technology, engineering and maths skills (STEM to most of us) can play a huge part in this.

The demand for people with STEM skills is obvious. The Royal Academy of Engineering says that, as a country, we need at least a 50% increase in STEM graduates to compete on a global footing in the future.

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills has said that, of the nearly two million new jobs created between 2007 and 2017, 58% will require STEM skills. And two in five companies that need employees with STEM skills currently have difficulties recruiting staff.

But as highlighted in the Richards’ review last year, high-value, highly-skilled Level 3 engineering apprenticeships are not being taken by enough young people. This is despite a recent study by the Centre for Economics and Business Research estimating that such apprentices could earn around £150,000 more over their lifetime, compared to earnings for the average graduate. And at a time when we are asking school leavers to pay for their onward education.

Parallel universes

So why are not enough young people choosing STEM subjects? If we look specifically at physics A-level, less than 10% of all students are studying it, only 20% of whom are female. Vince Cable used an astounding statistic when he spoke at the Engineering Employers Federation’s annual dinner in March: in mixed state schools in Britain, half don’t have a single female student studying physics at A-Level.

How can there be so much demand from employers but so little supply? The key word is choice. In my view, one of the barriers to young people making the right choices is a lack of good careers advice.

Steve Holliday

I worry that too many young people do not know what options are open to them at an early enough point. So this is about narrowing the gap between education and work, and bridging this disconnect between what employers expect, and young people’s understanding of what is expected of them.

McKinsey’s Education to Employment report found that ‘educators and employers operate in parallel universes’ and that the solution lies in bringing these two universes together.

As employers, we rely on the education system to provide the foundation for young people that will prepare them for their careers. But this is unrealistic. Business needs to play its part – it is no use just complaining from the sidelines that people aren’t choosing STEM.

Earlier intervention

The onus is on everyone to make careers advice work effectively. Much of this is about demystifying – particular careers – and by promoting vocational learning. But we need to make an earlier intervention too; waiting to give young people the range of options when they are 16 or 18 is too late.

Getting the right information to young people at the right time is key. We must harness technology to reach them through media they use day-in, day-out. This is all about collaboration and co-ordination, across industries and across government, education and business. None of us can address this problem in isolation but it is clear that there is an important role for business and there is more that we can do.

That’s why I’m proposing developing a plan of the things that business can do to improve things. Over the coming months, we will be working with key stakeholders, including young people, their teachers, the department of education and interested businesses. We will then be clear about the gaps and what role business can play in helping to enhance career advice, so that we can make sure it becomes an integral part of every child’s education and not just a bolt on.

Ultimately, the country’s economy, businesses and the individuals will all benefit from a better system of careers advice – one that gives the right information at the right time and in the right way, to those who need it.

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  • Colin Ray

    Steve, you may remember me from my NG days, I fully support your views. I am a STEM Ambassador and work through the Imagineering Foundation to engage with schools to promote engineering. If I can help promote your plan please let me know.

  • Christopher Hartley

    I’m the same as you Colin. As a STEM Ambassador and Imagineering facilitator I regulalry promote engineering in schools from Primary through to A-Level. It’s exposure like this that will help ignite the minds of future engineers. But it’ll need nuturing along with good careers advice showing the possibilities within STEM & Engineering.

    Careers advice should never be left solely to schools as it won’t be the best it can. I still remember my school career advisor some 23 years ago showing more interest in the racing results than what I wanted to do.

    The best way I’ve found to promote STEM careers is through career events like those organised by STEMnet. It’s organisations like this who are sowing the seeds, we just need to work together to grow them on.

  • Bob Shanks

    Imagineering, an educational charity, has early STEM intervention activities for children from the age of 9, as planting of ideas is beneficial before the age of 11. The activities are fun hands on clubs after school run by engineers. National Grid does support Imagineering Clubs with some sponsorship and tutors. This could bewillingly developed within the context described by Steve Holliday.
    PS. Note at 11, 50% girls in clubs!!

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  • Simon Henning

    Hi, thanks for your suggestions about about the design of our articles and the headlines we use.
    We do try to be descriptive and informative with headlines – we think ‘the skills gap’ neatly sums up what this blog is about.
    And we try, wherever possible, to include relevant photography, videos or graphics if they are relevant to the article. We do constantly look to improve though, so sugegstions from our readers are always welcome.
    Thanks again
    Simon Henning, National Grid

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