hgkc Roundtable – is the battle for STEM recruitment over?

Problems with recruitment in STEM-based careers and the resulting conversations to try and address them are not new. As the world’s industry develops at an ever-quickening pace, demand for talent intensifies and businesses that find the right people receive a competitive advantage.

But, considering we have been trying to solve the conundrum within UK industry for some time, are we getting any closer to solutions?

The most recent figures from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills bi-annual survey in 2015 show 23% of jobs are unable to be filled because of the UK skills shortage – a 130% rise from the previous survey in 2013.

This equates to 209,000 vacancies without suitable skilled candidates and there is reportedly a shortfall of up to 59,000 engineers a year. Couple this with a fall in STEM apprenticeships and a shortfall of 40,000 STEM graduates and it makes pretty grim reading.

Locally, Business West reports that the skills gap has been cited by 52% of respondents to their surveys as a key barrier to growth. The biggest skill shortages are in financial AND professional services, construction, transport, communications, digital technology and IT, manufacturing and utilities.

Peter Quintana
Peter Quintana

The impact on companies in terms of lower rates of production and cost to the economy is an estimated £63billion a year in lost GDP. It is also driving up IT salaries and making competition for STEM candidates extremely high.#

However, statistics are only one part of the picture. On June 28th High Growth Knowledge Company – in association with Milsted Langdon, Jelf Insurance and ISL Recruitment – brought together business leaders from across the West Country at the Bath Priory Hotel to ask what their experiences have been on the front line and how – or if – companies are overcoming these challenges on a daily basis.

Here are the key points from the ensuing conversation:

Competition is driving up salaries:

It was generally accepted that the competitive market is pushing up market rates and this demand is making it harder than ever to recruit. However, another aspect is that it this is creating friction with existing staff, making it hard to retain talent who may feel they are being undervalued.
In some cases, the financial impact of this on business is so great, that certain areas of commercial output are being put under review. This issue is creating pressure on leadership, so developing solutions are recognised as being business critical. One potential way of creating successful recruitment strategies was hiring for cultural relevance and conducting the training or retraining in-house to fit the business needs, thereby taking out the ‘shopping list’ approach to technical skill requirements that many firms adopt.

Government strategies are not joined up:

While it was recognised there are some beneficial initiatives underway, the feeling was that the government’s overall strategy was not joined up and that certain key programmes are not well promoted. This is causing a disconnect across the country where colleges such as the UTCs are creating huge opportunities for both young people and employers but not necessarily being plugged into the local markets effectively.

Candidates have a lot of choice and so can ‘cherry pick’ the best roles:

Industry sectors that are seen as more interesting, such as robotics, are an easier sell that those which are regarded as more common place, such as back room functions who are finding it almost impossible to recruit at university graduate level. Also, people are relying too much on communication models such as social media to reach new candidates with little idea about how – or if – these platforms are actually working.

The speed of change is causing headaches for education and industry:

The fact that things change very quickly within the market – particularly within computing and IT – means that teaching relevant skills in schools and colleges can be difficult as by the time students leave the world has moved on.

Engagement in STEM in primary schools is good but tends to drop off at 11:

Much praise was given to the work being done in primary schools, in particular, around STEM engagement. However, for girls in particular, interest was seen to drop off at about 11 years of age. This means that the work being done in younger years is not being carried through to secondary school.

Parents are a big problem!:

A major marketing campaign focused on parents was thought to be a good idea as within both the female entry and interest aspect as well as encouraging youngsters to choose apprenticeships, parents are seen as a major barrier. This was thought particularly due to the fact that parents want their children to attend university and do not see apprenticeships as a viable option – even if their children actively wanted to pursue this route.

STEM-based industries are trying hard to attract women:

But there was a lot of discussion around why this was not effective – and, in fact, becoming ‘exhausting’. Much of the time there is now an equal gender split at graduate recruitment level, but this gets harder to maintain the higher up the hierarchy the employee travels. It was noted that unconscious bias has a major part to play in this, both in men and women, who both have conditioned ideas about what part a woman plays within engineering and IT roles and within the workplace in general. It was noted that there may also be a gender bias in women against engineering and IT roles as maths graduates have a 50-50 split, but most women chose professional service careers from these courses.

Equality ‘role models’ are hard to find:

Women now also do not want to necessarily champion being a ‘woman in …’ role as they generally want to get on with and be seen as good at their job, irrespective of gender. However, this was also seen as a male issue. Many of the businesses present had developed parental leave and flexible working packages for male employees but there was a pre-conception that they would be seen as ‘slacking off’ if they were to take up this option. Again, finding and promoting examples of where these areas were working was considered to be very hard. A programme of ‘normalisation’ on these issues was recognised as being important but difficult to know where to start.

Education, education, education:

In-house education, especially with white middle-aged males who have never experienced bias in their own careers but who are also generally at board level within STEM industries was seen as being beneficial. But this must also be combined with the need to improve access to STEM subjects for women in secondary education. Participants also felt it was a multifaceted issue that needs to engage government, educators and parents to help change the perception of what it takes for women to successfully move through STEM industries as a lifetime career choice.

In Summary:

The mix of businesses in the room created a lively and enjoyable debate which demonstrated the level of passion and interest in this challenging subject.

There were key areas of agreement around how problematic recruitment strategies are for certain parts of the market and that the focus needed does not just lie in one area but must build across many partners if the solutions are to be sustainable.

But many solutions were also presented on an individual basis where various measures of success were being seen. Each individual organisation had lessons for the others to learn both in attitude and in technical specifics in the way the recruitment process works.

There is no doubt that the participants had one thing in common and that was an acknowledgement of not only the importance that STEM skills play to the individual organisations but of the value and benefit the outputs from STEM companies for the whole of society.

This energy and commitment gives us hope that the future for STEM talent, irrespective of background or gender, in the UK is bright and must now be harnessed by wider network organisations, from a local level up to Government decision makers to ensure we progress quicker and more effectively than ever before.

Facilitators: Peter Quintana & Karen Gill, HGKC

Participants: Simon Palmer, QTAC Payroll; Jon Oliver, UTC Swindon; Beverley Ford, Rotaval; Mat Hubbard, AB Dynamics; Tracey Wardrope, BMT Defence Services; James Hunt, DNA Worldwide; Neil White, Altran; David Kelly, Storm Consultancy; Alan Furley, ISL; Ian Lloyd, Milsted Langdon; Ian Sandham, Jelf.

High Growth Knowledge Company enable good businesses to grow through innovation and change. Being innovative is key to attracting the best talent. If you’d like to talk about your business, why not get in touch for a coffee? Contact us here, or by calling 0117 332 1002.

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