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  1. Politics
  2. Education
8 September 2017

Why the next generation matters

Paul Stein, chief technology officer at Rolls-Royce, explains why it is vital for the UK to improve its STEM skills pipeline.

The fact that the United Kingdom is facing a shortage of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills is a rare point of consensus across several different sectors. Armed with the knowledge that the UK engineering industry contributed £486bn to the country’s GDP in 2015, we are aware that plugging this skills gap and indeed improving the skills pipeline is going to be crucial to making the UK self-sustainable. Engineering UK has calculated that by being able to hire 182,000 skilled workers per year by 2020, the UK’sGDP could increase by as much as £27bn. It is a hard truth that not enough young people are choosing to pursue STEM careers. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills found earlier this year that 43 per cent of STEM vacancies are hard to fill due to a lack of qualified candidates. A Green Paper published by the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee, meanwhile, noted: “We have a shortage of technical-level skills and rank 16th out of 20 OECD countries for the proportion of people with technical qualifications.” We all have a responsibility to inspire the next generation, whether industry or government, to encourage the next Tim Berners-Lee or Katherine Johnson to take up STEM subjects and careers.

As sciences increasingly converge, it is imperative that courses become more multi-disciplinary, combining different studies together and steering away from the idea that one size fits all. Technologists will need to understand the digital world as well as material science for example. It seems obvious, therefore, that as industry’s needs evolve, so will the technology and the abilities of those tasked with creating it. Many youngsters are now growing up with a plethora of technology available to them on a daily basis yet too few are aware of how these things actually work.

When it comes to getting more young people interested in STEM subjects, there is no such thing as too early and programmes such as the Rolls-Royce Science Prize can inspire teachers and in turn students to see how scientific principals can be demonstrable in real-life applications. We also have over 1,400 STEM ambassadors worldwide who can go into schools to share with students how their enthusiasm and passion for the STEM subjects has resulted in a huge variety of careers, humanising how technology is constantly shaping the future. Whenever students sit on an aeroplane and look out of the window, we should be getting them thinking about the technical expertise that went into making that possibility a reality. We should encourage them to challenge the status quo – what comes after the jet engine? It is within their gift to create that next step.

The technological progress we have made in the last 100 years has been nothing short of incredible; in sectors such as transport, manufacturing and telecommunications, we have come on leaps and bounds. But that progress must not foster complacency. Advancement, ultimately, must lead to empowerment. Technology can be bettered and it can tackle issues that we as a society face collectively. The processes of electrification and digitalisation across sectors are gathering pace and will provide us with exciting opportunities.

The future generations will be tackling some of society’s biggest issues. For example, take the environment and our growing energy needs, as a planet, the need to decarbonise is clear. A possible solution could be Rolls-Royce’s Small Modular Reactor (SMR) programme. The programme represents a unique opportunity for the UK’s nuclear companies to design, manufacture and build next generation reactors to meet the country’s energy demand. We are strongly placed to deliver the design and, together with a consortium of UK companies, re-establishing the UK supply chain to a position of global recognition. However, the programme needs highly specialised skills throughout its lifecycle.

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Of course this is only makes up part of our plan towards encouraging more people to take up STEM careers. Given what’s at stake, the impetus to get better in recruiting from a greater diversity of candidates and reach out past any perceived barriers of class, gender or ethnicity, should be obvious. We need more young people interested in and engaged with the initiative to discover and empower. We need a new generation of graduates and apprentices, inspired by the evidence all around them, of what science can do and what it could do next with their help. Rolls-Royce is a proudly British organisation and we are determined to make sure this country keeps at the forefront of necessary modernisation.

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