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Mind the gap: how to save the UK’s technological future

Closing the UK’s STEM skills gap must be a priority for government, academia and industry.

Saying that technology is evolving is something of an understatement, but what about the people it’s intended for? The pace at which technology is changing is currently in danger of outrunning uptake, risking making the innovations redundant. After all, what good is innovation if no one knows how to use it?

Technology shouldn’t be preserved only for purely technical specialists. Any and every industry should profit from technological progress to enhance products, services and experiences. You don’t need to be a web developer, for example, to benefit from web development. For instance, consider the advent of online shopping or advertising. Yet technology currently occupies some sort of weird purgatory in the United Kingdom’s overall economy. People widely appreciate that technology has advanced and is still advancing, but too few are equipped with the skills, or a will to learn skills, to make the most of the benefits available.

It’s time to get more digitally-minded

This lag is particularly evident within UK business, where better technical know-how is becoming a big issue. Research by Approved Index in March indicated that approximately two million small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the UK did not have an online presence at all. A YouGov study, meanwhile, found that the average UK household contains seven devices connected to the internet.

One of the principle barriers to better technology skills uptake is perception. Right now the UK is facing a shortfall of around 40,000 graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. Often technology is let down by its outward image, one that is hamstrung by jargon or anecdotes about six-year degree courses and lots of exams. Not enough is made, however, of the practical contributions made in society by technology and its potential to change pretty much anything, be that in marketing, manufacturing, medicine or transport.

Bringing the spark to STEM skills

Tata Consultancy Services is tackling the UK’s STEM skills deficit head on. The on-going TCS Digital Explorers Experience Work programme, designed in partnership with MyKindaFuture, is a series of week-long work experience programmes, hosted around the country which aim to expose teenage students to the golden opportunities of STEM careers. Academics and industry professionals take part in the week-long workshops to share their experiences and insights through a variety of presentations, hands-on experiments and group exercises, such as the TCS Spark Salon – an initiative designed to explore the impact of technology in creating a sustainable world.

One such expert, Peter Bagnall, a software developer at UL, recognises that STEM skills are “hugely important” to improving the workforce quality of UK PLC. He said: “My first degree was in physics, and every now and again a problem will appear and I’ll know how to approach it because of that background. Both physics and software share a way of looking at the world, that you see a problem, and you break it down into smaller problems, and you keep doing that until the pieces are small enough for you to solve.”

Bagnall added: “Maths is always helpful too, it pops up in the most unlikely places, so being comfortable with numbers, algebra and statistics is going to be important if you’re going for a technical career. If you can understand the maths behind something then you know you really understand it.”

Earlier education may be the key

In actively addressing the UK’s STEM skills shortage, TCS is urging academia, industry and government to collaborate more regularly. Shaping curriculums to feature more practical elements, for instance, may be a way of engaging more students to engage and focus on STEM subjects earlier in their learning. Bagnall pointed out that as technology continues to permeate every industry, there is an increased responsibility to upskill people in order to maintain a steady rate of employment. He said: “Employers are finding it hard to recruit skilled people. In the software industry, getting good developers is hard; there just aren’t enough of us. That means good ideas can fail due to a lack of skilled people, it slows down innovation hugely. As we automate more and more things, jobs like driving will decline, and be replaced by software engineers who build self-driving cars instead. So the level of skills required is just going to go up – but it’s also going to become a lot more interesting.”

Jo Johnson MP, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, echoed as much in his comments for the government’s Industrial Strategy. “Encouraging students from an early age to have an understanding of science,” he said, “needs to be a priority if the UK is to stay at the forefront of research and innovation. While there have been extensive reforms in the national curriculum, which will be difficult for teachers and students alike to absorb, it must be kept relevant for students’ STEM skills needs as they enter a continually evolving workplace.”

More STEM students means more potential

The UK’s STEM issue, ultimately, is one rooted in numbers: there are too few students studying STEM subjects, not enough people with the necessary STEM skills, and not enough people pursuing specifically STEM-related careers. TCS believes that extending opportunities to access technology experience and insight will improve interest and uptake of STEM subjects and increase STEM skills. The UK must address the STEM skills shortage or risk being left behind by more technically savvy global competitors such as China and the United States and it can only hope to meet the numbers it needs to by casting its net further afield. Bottle-necking investment and industry into London and the south of England, for example, is not conducive to this aim, and thus the country must consider all of its imbalances together.

The most recent Digital Explorers event in November was hosted in Birmingham and is an example of reducing this imbalance. The existing potential of the Midlands “engine” is huge and can only be improved by increasing technology skills and studies. The Midlands is home to 25 universities in total and 50 further education colleges, including high-ranking institutions such as Warwick, Loughborough, Birmingham, Nottingham and Leicester; as well as a cluster of manufacturing and automotive firms – Jaguar Land Rover, Toyota and Rolls-Royce to name a few – which provides the ideal backdrop for collaboration and insight.

STEM, TCS contends, should be presented as an attractive and important career path, to anyone and everyone, regardless of where they live in the UK, their gender or social background. Despite there being a shortage in STEM skills, the potential for better national success still remains high – which is why it’s time to take action today, to be ready for tomorrow.

Nupur Mallick is UK HR Director at Tata Consultancy Services.