According to some interesting statistics from the year 2015, 64% of engineering employers in the UK state that the current shortfall of 55,000 engineers with the appropriate skill set threatens their business. Additionally, 32% of companies across multiple sectors currently find it difficult to recruit experienced staff in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM); a similar 20% deficit gap applies at graduate level. As a possible solution, the UK could look to drastically increase the number of people with engineering skills in the future.

This shortfall raises question such as: How is this shortage created? How can we as a society work towards solving this issue? Is this due to a lack of unawareness of STEM and its potential? And what is or are the potential root causes?

Being a Graduate Engineer and PhD student in the Data Analytics for Resource Efficiency team at HSSMI, I am passionate about STEM and as such I would like to share a personal perspective starting with a bit of a background about myself: I studied maths and computer science, but up until my last year at school, I would have never imagined I would end up being where I am now. Don’t get me wrong – there hasn’t been a single day where I regretted any of the study decisions I made, I just never imagined myself as an engineer or scientist. I always liked maths and arts, and for a long time I wanted to do something with design. But working in research and engineering? Not even thought about it!

For no particular reason I ended up studying Industrial Maths at the University of Applied Sciences in Stuttgart. The question I was asked the most was “So you want to become a maths teacher after you finish university?” Despite the fact that my qualifications wouldn’t have allowed me to do so, my answer always was “I don’t know what I want to do later, but it is not going to be teaching.” During my maths studies I got introduced to programming – and really enjoyed it. So much actually, that after I finished my Bachelor’s degree I did a Master’s in Software Technology, which in the end brought me to HSSMI where I am now.

As most of my education took place in Germany I cannot comment on the school system here in the UK. But from the outcomes published by King’s College London in their ASPIRES study, I would argue experiences are similar to the ones I had in Germany. I’m really fascinated (not necessarily in a good way) by Figure 1. Students seem to enjoy their science classes at school and think that scientists can have an impact in the world. But how come this joy is not enough to aspire young people to take on a career in science?

Figure 1: Comparison of [ASPIRE] survey responses from Year 6, Year 8 and Year 9 students

Figure 1: Comparison of [ASPIRE] survey responses from Year 6, Year 8 and Year 9 students

One possible reason might be the existence of stereotypes that the STEM careers have to face. Students have to understand what a career in STEM subjects can look like, for example that as a graduate in Maths you don’t necessarily have to become a teacher, that as a scientist you don’t always have to wear a white coat or work in a lab all by yourself. On the contrary, what I like about my job is that I work together with different people from different backgrounds, get to learn new exciting things almost every day, can work and collaborate abroad and have the chance to solve issues people in manufacturing encounter.

Personally, I think industries and schools have to join forces to break these stereotypes to make a career in STEM “cool” and attractive to young people (Figure 2). But how can we do this? Could providing students with encouraging role models be the answer?

Figure 2: Percentage of Year 9 students agreeing would like this job [ASPIRE, modified]

Figure 2: Percentage of Year 9 students agreeing would like this job [ASPIRE, modified]

There are a lot of great volunteering opportunities for professionals working in STEM to reach out to students and tell them about their experiences. Just to name a few:

  • “I’m an Engineer – Get me out of here!” (IAEGMOOH): Beginning of this year, I participated in an online event called “I’m an Engineer – Get me out of here!” (IAEGMOOH) where school students get the chance to interact with engineers for about two weeks in an X-Factor style competition. Communication between the students and the engineers takes place in moderated 30 minute live chats or a forum. Nearly 50 schools interacted with 25 engineers across 5 different zones on topics such as food, fuel, metre, surgery and robotics. Based on the live chats and responses to questions asked in the forum, the students vote for their favourite engineer to win a prize of £500, which needs to be spent on activities to publicly promote engineering. We received questions ranging from “What is your favourite food?”, “What is the best thing about your job?” to “If robots more intelligent than humans are created, will they be able to create robots more intelligent than themselves?” and “Does being a female effect the way you’re treated being a scientist?”. I personally think, IAEGMOOH is a great opportunity for students to be exposed to real engineers communicating through a medium they are used to.
  • “I’m a Scientist – Get me out of here!” [Careers Zone]: Following my engagement in IAEGMOOH, I was asked by the organisers if I would also like to participate in another online event they were launching. “I’m a Scientist – Get me out of here!” [Careers Zone] gives students who are about to graduate the opportunity to ask questions more focused on an engineering and science career. These events are only a few hours long and do not include the voting system, but are again live chats and forum-based. In total around 20 experts from an engineering and science background are available to answer questions. Students at that age normally ask more specific questions about the choice of A-levels and universities.
  • STEMNET: Based on my engagement in IAEGMOOH, I registered as a STEMNET Ambassador. STEMNET is the UK’s only network of STEM professionals volunteering as STEM Ambassadors. The application process requires a 2-3 hour induction and a DBS check so that, once successful, you can go to schools promoting STEM subjects to engage with students in a fun way or inviting them to a company visit. As an ambassador, I visited a school with a colleague of mine to do some hands-on projects with primary school students to show them the principles of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR). STEMNET provides an online database where Ambassadors can be requested for to attend certain events, but equally Ambassadors can put forward their own activities as well.

My experience with these activities so far has been really positive! It’s great to see how curious students are by questioning you and the things you do. And for me it is an excellent experience trying to explain my work to a younger audience. The feedback from teachers also showed that the students enjoyed getting to know engineers in person rather than just hear or read about them. I enjoy doing these outreach activities and hope to have an ongoing impact on the students and their careers by giving them an idea of how versatile science and engineering can be.

What are your thoughts on this? How can we inspire young people to take on a career in engineering? Do you as a company have STEM outreach activities in place? As a school, do you engage with industry or do you face any difficulties in doing so?

Author: Melanie Zimmer (melanie.zimmer@hssmi.org)