Fishing in the Right Talent Pools in 2023: The Best Places to Find STEM Talent
By Bruntwood SciTech
A lot has been said about talent gaps in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in recent years, but what’s the latest state of play in 2023?
We spoke to Zoe Wallace, the Director of Agent Academy (a Social Enterprise based at Circle Square) and Holly Young, Innovation Manager at Bruntwood SciTech’s Alderley Park, about where and how to find the best new STEM talent in the UK.
STEM Subject Uptake in the UK
There’s been a STEM subject uptake in the UK over recent years, thanks in part to measures designed to support STEM teaching, undertaken by the Department for Education. Resources like Isaac Physics, an online resource hub supporting students transitioning between GCSEs, sixth form and university, have played a vital role in STEM uptake. There’s also a range of support for teacher CPD (Continuing Professional Development) - such as Science Learning Partnerships, the Stimulating Physics Network, a huge £84 million programme to improve computing teaching and participation, and the Mastery teaching programme in mathematics. Equipping educators with the knowledge and skills to elevate their delivery of STEM subjects makes a huge difference to how young people perceive the sector.
The Department for Education has also requested that the Office for Students reprioritise funding towards the provision of high-cost STEM subjects, including those that support the NHS and wider healthcare policy. As these subjects are crucial to future talent of the country to drive its knowledge economy forward, we hope to see an uplift in funding and for the government to explore further opportunities to make these subjects more accessible across the regions.
There’s the financial incentive to consider for those pursuing STEM in the UK, too. Graduates from STEM degrees are typically able to access a higher starting wage, with research showing that achieving 2 or more A Levels in STEM subjects adds more than 7.8% to earnings, when compared to just gaining GCSE level qualifications. It’s no wonder, then, that the UK’s ambitious young people are turning their attention towards STEM.
The UK’s Richest Talent Pools
According to governmental research, the South East, London and the East of England continue to lead the pack in terms of the supply and demand of STEM talent and opportunities to work in core STEM roles. Whilst the report findings show an expected skills shortage in the supply versus the demand for core STEM roles in the North West, this is not as profound as in other northern regions - the North West remains one of the UK’s most powerful innovation hubs and pools of talent.
In Manchester for example, the Oxford Road Corridor,the city’s innovation district, recently announced its 2030 vision. With initiatives in place to bolster innovation-led growth, including Bruntwood SciTech’s developments such as ID Manchester, Citylabs 4.0 and the further phase expansions of Manchester Science Park, there’s an increasing number of opportunities for science, digital and tech businesses to recruit from a growing pool of over 32,000 STEM students on the Corridor. In fact, Manchester has become the fastest-growing tech hub in the North, raising over £1.8 billion in the last 5 years alone. The Corridor already boasts 13,000 jobs in hospitals, medical and dental practices, including 6,500 clinicians, with 79,000 people currently employed within the Corridor itself, and an anticipated 104,000 FTE jobs by 2025.
Meanwhile in the West Midlands, there’s a growing cohort of STEM talent - with Birmingham becoming one of the fastest-growing tech sectors in the UK as of 2021. The region produces over 58,000 graduates per year from the nine world-class universities and higher education institutions based there, with one of the highest post-graduation student retention rates outside London. There are a myriad of career routes available to STEM talent in Birmingham, with 170 businesses based in Innovation Birmingham alone.
High Potential Opportunity
In 2021, the life sciences sector across Greater Manchester and Cheshire received HPO status (High Potential Opportunity) from the Department of International Trade - specifically highlighting the region’s key strengths in diagnostics and healthy ageing. In terms of job opportunities in life sciences, job vacancy numbers in the North West are second only to Cambridge - and ahead of Oxford. This can be attributed to the marginally lower cost of living in the North West compared to the South and East, which is an advantage for the area in attracting both companies and talent. Manchester was also ranked number one in the UK in a global liveability survey from the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Combating the UK’s STEM Talent Shortage
The shortage of STEM talent in the UK can be attributed partly down to business owners and employers not knowing where to look for it, but it is more prominently as a result of businesses not always having access to the talent they need at the time they need it. STEM talent isn’t just found in graduates from STEM degrees; but within diverse young people with the skill sets, lived experiences and different perspectives that the industry sorely needs.
One of our partners, Agent Academy, works with STEM career changers from alternative or non-traditional education pathways, whose life experiences have prepared them with skills in innovation and collaboration - essential components of successful STEM careers. Given that experts believe 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven't been invented yet, there’s an urgent need to increase the focus on how to identify transferable skill sets, and finding the best fit within the STEM industry for non-traditional talent.
Bridging the STEM Skills Gap
Skills gaps arise for a variety of reasons. A huge issue across core STEM industries is the struggle to replace those ageing out of the workforce, as well as difficulties keeping up with the training demands of a fast-paced and innovative sector. Ensuring a diverse range of stable, accessible and relevant routes into STEM, with clear pathways for progression, is an integral part of bridging the skills gap. The shift from the traditional academic, degree-led route into STEM is well underway, with the provision of apprenticeships and bootcamp style training programmes. These alternative routes allow participants to learn up-to-date skills necessary for the science, tech and digital industries, without necessitating that having a university degree is the sole route in.
As employers have observed, the cost of training is a barrier to upskilling the workforce. For the UK’s STEM industries to thrive, this is an issue that needs to be resolved quickly. It has also been suggested that the workforce is underutilised, with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) suggesting that 42% of firms in the UK have staff who are overqualified for the work they do. This disconnect is undoubtedly slowing the progress across STEM industries, to the UK’s detriment.
More financial and practical support is required for those skilled individuals looking to retrain. Significant pay cuts during training, or inflexibility around family and caring responsibilities, are examples of common factors narrowing the skills gap - despite the fact they’re easily resolved. In a 2021 report, the government outlined their commitment to post-16 training and opportunities, ensuring individuals can access skills training throughout their lives. For example, the introduction of lifelong learning loans will support STEM candidates by allowing them access to higher technical qualifications, and a pathway into industry.
The Universality of STEM
Our partner Agent Academy works with young people from a range of different backgrounds to secure them jobs in creative, digital and tech industries. The boundaries between STEM and other sectors are far more fluid than people potentially realise. For instance, Agent Academy has worked with both STEM and creative industry employers seeking talented individuals able to engage in research, analysis, and innovation. Whilst these skills are transferable, they remain the foundation of STEM subject skillsets - standing every job candidate in good stead.
Given that employers are always looking for employees with technical nous, including data analysis, user experience, and research and development design sprints, studying STEM is a great pathway which can and does lead to employment across a vast range of industries.
The analytical, creative and problem solving skills required in STEM roles are useful tools across the board, as every job involves some aspects of science, technology, engineering and maths. Indeed, science, technology and engineering move at such a pace that the job you end up doing might not even exist yet.
The UK is already seen as a global R&D powerhouse, with its life science sector in particular displaying unprecedented levels of opportunity and growth. The industry secured a total of £7bn in equity financing in 2021- a greater than twelve-fold increase since 20212.
But there are multiple industries within STEM that have already seen or are likely to see rapid growth outside life sciences, too. For example, roles in sustainability or requiring green skills, technology and engineering, such as ethical advisors for artificial intelligence companies, chatbot engineers, electric vehicle infrastructure advisors and engineers, have only emerged in the last few years. According to the OECD, AI and automation is actually set to radically change around a third of existing jobs.
Every STEM business also relies on the labour of workers with support roles, without which those technical roles couldn’t exist. That support role might look something like fundraising, filing patents, marketing products, or recruiting. Digital marketing and social media have an important place within STEM too - whether it’s about promoting a product launch or spreading the word about important company activity.
Incentivising Students to Choose STEM
If employers want access to a pool of skilled, talented potential employees, they will need to do more outreach to nurture this talent themselves. Agent Academy recently hosted a ‘Talent for Growth’ event in Bruntwood SciTech’s Circle Square, where digital and tech employers discussed what they could do to develop a pipeline of emerging talent. Most employers agreed that working with schools, colleges, and training providers, to demonstrate the limitless potential of the STEM industries, will inspire the future workforce to consider a career in STEM.
At Bruntwood SciTech, we’ve worked with a number of schools across the UK to develop bespoke enrichment programmes and workshops focused on developing practical industry skills for employers, through our business support programmes and partnerships with companies such as Manchester Digital's DigitalHer and Birmingham-based Digital Innovators, who run The Ideator programme from our Innovation Birmingham campus. In Cambridge, we’ve joined Cambridge Science Centre’s Executive Board to support children’s interest in STEM. We look forward to opening up Melbourn Science Park to the broader community and encouraging young people and their parents to explore opportunities in science and tech.
A 2018 government report found that gender stereotypes are set by age 7, with 36% of children from as young as seven years old basing their career aspirations on people they know. Of those who didn’t, 45% stated that TV, film and radio were the biggest factors influencing their choice. Less than 1% of children knew about a job from someone visiting their school. The report found this has ‘real implications for social mobility, as children from poorer backgrounds may not have successful role models from the world of work and their aspirations are limited as a result.’
In this way, we need to make STEM careers more visible for every child, through role model programmes and engagement with industry. To help young people and their influencers see STEM as an achievable, fulfilling and accessible career option we need to consider how STEM careers, and especially attitudes towards STEM, are portrayed and talked about in our media.
Teacher training to support STEM learning and more opportunities for employers to engage with young people through meaningful work placement programmes and inspirational career activities will also support the building of the talent pipelines in local areas. Strategies like
Funding to upskill teachers in STEM via Science Learning Partnerships
Computing teaching bursaries
Employers supporting teacher training through ENTHUSE partnerships,
are all vital to ensuring teachers are confident teaching the most up-to-date and relevant topics in STEM. Opportunities for teachers to see and engage with STEM workplaces will also support their understanding of careers in STEM.
For British Science Week in March, Bruntwood SciTech is supporting schools to engage with STEM industries by inviting young people, aged 14-15, to Alderley Park, to learn about the industry-leading work that happens there. The students will be able to see how STEM works in the real world, encouraging them to choose STEM subjects at GCSE and A-Level, or to consider a technical STEM qualification post-16. We’re committed to supporting the continued growth of the UK’s world-class life science and tech community. We believe that bridging the STEM skills gap, diversifying the workforce and attracting talent from less traditional pathways is the future of the industry. Learn more about Bruntwood SciTech today.