Greater funding must be made available for UK careers provision, particularly for STEM career pathways, if we are to meet future skills demand and targets to get more people from diverse backgrounds into the workforce, writes Dr Hilary Leevers.

A year ago, EngineeringUK published 'Securing the future' which called on the Government to invest £40 million to improve careers provision for students in schools and colleges across England. This is essential to enable all young people to understand the careers opportunities available to them in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and for more of them to choose to work in these areas. The call for greater investment was made against the backdrop of a longstanding engineering and tech skills shortage in the UK and hundreds of thousands new workers needed to meet Net Zero.

The report, developed by EngineeringUK and seven engineering and careers organisations, included insights based on a survey from careers leaders and STEM teachers. They highlighted the impact lack of time and funding was having on their ability to give all young people the opportunity to find out more about the kind of jobs available in engineering and technology.

Good quality careers information and guidance is central to ensuring that more young people from all backgrounds can see themselves as working in engineering and tech. Improving young people's knowledge of the variety of roles, the diversity of people filling them and the salaries they command (which are typically under-estimated), should attract more young people in.

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'Securing the future' identified a range of issues, including:

  • Lack of role models – nearly half of survey respondents said this was a barrier for female students, with over a third saying the same for students from minority ethnic backgrounds and a third for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds
  • Limited understanding of what STEM careers entail among STEM teachers and careers leaders
  • Poor coverage – STEM careers provision varied across schools, was more challenging in schools with higher rates of free school meals (first identified in the Engineering Brand Monitor), and was delivered as an extra-curricular option, only reaching those who were selected or self-select to learn more, in some schools

We must do better if we are going to meet the country's need for a larger and more diverse engineering and tech workforce. Until we do, we are failing to present fulfilling career opportunities in an equitable way, and we will also have a workforce that lacks the innovation that accompanies diversity and is less responsive to all of society's needs. Research we published earlier this year found that 16.5 per cent of the engineering workforce are women – although this is an increase of 6 percentage points from 2010, there is clearly a long way to go. People from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, minority ethnic groups, and disabled people are also under-represented, although not to the same extent.

Research conducted by EngineeringUK also clearly shows that young people who know more about what engineers do are more likely to perceive the profession in a positive way and to consider a career in engineering. The research also shows that STEM outreach and education activities are critical in this context. Students who had attended one or more STEM careers activity, were 3.5 times more likely than those who hadn't attended any to know about what people working in engineering did. They were also 3.4 times more likely than those who hadn't attended a STEM careers activity, to consider a career in engineering.

'Securing the future' recommended around £40 million annually to better resource secondary schools and colleges in England to support all young people with their careers choices, with allocated funding for STEM careers provision, focused on increasing diversity in the sector. Funding is also recommended for a dedicated STEM leader in each careers hub (these bring together local schools, colleges, employers, and apprenticeship providers). STEM leaders would support and facilitate careers activities with employers, including work experience – something that is going to become increasingly critical as the new vocational T levels roll-out, with their requirement for 45-day work placements.

The UK urgently needs engineering and technology innovation and expertise to address the complex challenges we are facing, such as meeting our energy needs, decarbonising across our economy, designing the built environment and public transport to minimise infection, and building up our investment in R&D. We need a strategy on how we are going to meet these workforce needs and including a careers strategy backed up by sufficient funding and workable structures to ensures that all young people from all backgrounds can capitalise on their education to get fulfilling and valued STEM careers. Investing in careers provision, especially around STEM, is indeed about securing the future – securing the wellbeing of our young people, economy and nation.

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