The UK Government does not have a good enough understanding of the STEM skills needed in today’s economy, according to a report published on Friday.

The report, published by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), voices concerns about the supply of STEM skills in the workforce, particularly with the growth of new technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) and the cybersecurity sector.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In education, it means the study of these subjects, either exclusively or in combination.

Although the UK is currently an international centre for artificial intelligence, a substantial lack of STEM skills in the workforce is “one of our key economic problems”, according to the report.

STEM skills shortage: what the report said

Recent research by STEM Learning found that 89% of STEM businesses struggle to recruit, with a current shortfall of 173,000 skilled workers costing UK businesses an estimated £1.5bn a year in recruitment.

The report put the shortage in part down to challenges in encouraging school-aged students to take up STEM subjects due to “many young people perceive STEM subjects to be too challenging”. It recommended that STEM-related careers advice is improved to counter this, particularly from those with first-hand experience in STEM industries. The report advised that without initiatives to change perceptions of STEM subjects in schools, “efforts to boost STEM skills in the workplace will fail”.

A lack of unity in government departments was also identified as an issue. Currently, the STEM skills programme is spread across a number of government departments, meaning there is a lack of concrete strategies to deal with the shortage. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills was closed in 2017 and replaced with Skills Advisory Panels (SAPs), which the report warned may not by “sufficiently aware of national and global skills supply issues to carry out their responsibilities effectively”.

Unsurprisingly, Brexit was identified as having a potential impact on STEM, with several science and engineering bodies believing that it could reduce the availability of necessary skills. According to the 2018 SRG Salary Survey, 40% of people working in STEM thought that they would have to work harder to retain their staff post-Brexit.

Overall the report makes it clear that the government is not doing enough to ensure that the requirement of STEM skills in today’s businesses is being adequately met:

“BEIS and DfE do not currently have sufficient understanding of what specific skills businesses really need or how Brexit will affect the already difficult task of ensuring the supply of STEM skills in the workforce. There is no universal definition of what should be counted as a STEM subject or job, which makes it difficult for government to clearly understand what STEM skills are needed.

“As technology advances, the skills profile of the workforce needs to change in parallel. But we are concerned that the provision of suitably skilled people is lagging behind the technological needs of businesses.”

Those in the tech industry are also concerned

Employers across all sectors face an increasing shortage of skilled STEM professionals, with the numbers recruited struggling to keep up with growing employer demand.

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Although London is often dubbed Europe’s ‘digital capital’, a recent survey conducted by Studio Graphene found that one in three London startups are suffering from a shortage in tech talent. Worryingly, 30% also say their growth has been hampered by not being able to hire the right people.

Director of City Road Communications Dominic Pollard believes that recruitment is struggling to keep up with the rate of development:

“The exponential growth in the number of tech startups emerging across London has made competition for talent extremely high. In particular, the shortage of people who have the right skills and, importantly, work ethic to join fast-growing tech businesses has become a cause for concern – it is clearly something that the public and private sectors must come together to try and address in the coming years.”

This is particularly evident in fast-emerging areas of tech such as AI and machine learning. Although AI is often accused of leading to job losses, the industry itself is facing a skills shortage in the UK, with more than two jobs available for every qualified person. As a result, the UK risks falling behind its international competitors.

Global head of technology practice at Odgers Berndtson Mike Drew believes this could be holding the industry back:

“It’s clear they need specialist skills in key areas like AI, machine learning and also digital ethics to drive and implement change. Seeing opportunities to digitally transform but not possessing the people to implement change will hold businesses back and create a competitive void.”

Skill shortages have also meant that UK businesses do not have sufficient cybersecurity expertise to prevent cyber attacks, with a survey by cyber insurer Hiscox finding that just 11% of organisations could qualify as cybersecurity ‘experts’.

This can have serious consequences in the event of security breaches such as the WannaCry ransomware attack last year.

Security practice manager at Cylance Dr Anton Grashion said:

“The complexity of being expert enough to chase threats into the organisation if they have not been prevented is also exacerbated by the growing cyber skills shortage.”

What needs to be done to fill the STEM skills gap?

The PAC has called on the department of education to address the STEM skill shortage in schools through monitoring the progress of the involvement of girls and women in STEM, working with OFSTED to improve STEM careers advice in schools, and do more to support technology institutes.

Drew also believes that the UK government needs to do more to encourage STEM skills to benefit the emerging technologies sector:

“The UK Government urgently needs to encourage substantially more students already pursuing technology-related research to specialise in key areas like artificial intelligence, human-computer interaction and machine learning because this, alongside a critical ability to assess societal impact, is what employers most need and want.”

In relation to Brexit, the report makes it clear that the government does “not currently have sufficient understanding of what specific skills businesses really need or how Brexit will affect the already difficult task of ensuring the supply of STEM skills in the workforce.”

It is vital to not only promote initiatives to encourage more take-up of STEM subjects in the UK, but also address the issue of the number of visas available for highly skilled migrants and whether the public sector pay cap is restricting organisations’ ability to recruit workers from overseas with the skills needed in today’s industry.