Tony March: School subjects that set young people up for the future

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Science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM as these subjects are widely referred to, educate people in the skills required to secure the future economic prosperity of our country. However, companies that require skilled graduates in these areas, such as IT and engineering, are struggling to fill roles and the energy and utilities sector has even forecast that, for the UK as a whole, it will require 221,000 new recruits with a background in a STEM subject by 2027.

Almost every business relies on individuals with STEM skills. At Anglian Water Business we employ a range of people from different disciplines, including those with a background in STEM who work as chemical engineers on innovative wastewater solutions, as well as individuals experienced in mathematics who work in our finance department. To keep up with the pace of technological change and challenges that the future holds, having an education in a STEM subject will only increase in importance for our business.

As well as the gap between supply and demand, we continue to see a huge gender imbalance within STEM careers. Over 50 per cent of students who graduate from a subject related to STEM are female; however, women only make up around 14 per cent of the STEM workforce. This ‘leaking pipe’ is exacerbating the skills gap, and with demand continuing to grow, we need to work harder to encourage more young people not only to study STEM subjects at school, college and university, but to educate these young people on the vast array of career opportunities that these subjects can open up to them.

Tomorrow, hundreds of young engineers and scientists from 50 schools across Scotland will gather at the Glasgow Science Centre for the Scottish Council for Development and Industry’s (SCDI) annual celebration of STEM event. On this day, clubs will go head to head to be crowned Club of the Year 2017, as well as compete in a series of three-minute challenges set by Anglian Water Business and 17 other industry partners.

It is celebrations such as this, where the partner organisations are the very employers who are reliant on a stream of individuals versed in these subjects entering the workplace in years to come, that help to make young people aware of the boundless career opportunities that studying a STEM subject can open up.

Last November, the Scottish Government published its draft strategy for STEM education and training. It set out two clear aims: to improve STEM enthusiasm, skills, and knowledge to raise attainment and aspirations; and to encourage uptake of more specialist STEM skills for employment in STEM economic sectors.

In March, the Scottish Government announced a new specialist group would be established to help shape the government’s STEM strategy and would seek to inspire more young people to specialise in STEM subjects. Additionally, the government’s Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy, Paul Wheelhouse, launched a target for life sciences, which employs 37,000 people in Scotland, to be worth £8 billion by 2025.

All of this signals a country that understands we are facing a chronic skills shortage and one that is working hard to ensure our future STEM skills needs are met. However, while the government can strategise and make plans for the future, what we must ensure we do, and continue to do, is get young people excited about these subjects and make them aware of the vast array of career opportunities available.

Recruiting individuals skilled in STEM subjects is essential to our business and will be critical to our future survival. In March 2016 Anglian Water Business won a major Scottish Procurement contact to provide water and wastewater billing services to over 200 public sector organisations and, as a result, our operations underwent rapid growth. Working with Skills Development Scotland, we created an apprenticeship programme to offer two new apprenticeships, one of which is in engineering and will help to ensure our workforce is qualified for the future.

We can all take steps of our own to demonstrate to young people the opportunities a STEM subject can open up, and by working together we can increase the supply of qualified individuals entering the workplace. To ensure Scotland’s future economic prosperity, we are completely reliant on a next generation of motivated and well-trained young people in a variety of STEM subjects.

Tony March is Business Development Manager at Anglian Water Business.