At the end of 2022, the National Statistics Office (ONS) recorded 120,000 jobs in the industries of ‘professional scientific and technical activities’, the fourth highest number of the data collected.
As part of the ‘Levelling Up’ initiative, the government is committed to putting 200,000 people working in STEM fields by 2030 in a bid to close the skills gap. The data shows that early 2023 saw nearly 6% more people working in the above industries compared to late 2022. That’s promising – but there’s still a long way to go.
Foam Technical Services (part of Grupo Vita), supplies industrial rubber and foam conversion services for companies around the world. The company is experiencing less talent coming into the industry with what Technical Sales Manager Duncan Geddes notes as “a non-highly visible industry.”
Below, Duncan shares his thoughts on the wider STEM skills gap and what efforts need to be made to close it.
Why is there a skills gap in STEM industries?
DG: Sadly, this symbolizes the changing world we live in. A growing number of the younger generation are not enthusiastic about entering industries traditionally led by academics; they are more attracted to work in lifestyle sectors such as media influence, online work, etc.
Not only are they seen as more glamorous, but also more likely to make you rich quicker. STEM businesses tend to be safer and offer longer careers, but where people used to place a high value on long-term careers, nowadays young people don’t look that far. It’s true that technology is likely to be attractive, but science, engineering and math, less so.
What else needs to be done on a broader scale to close the STEM skills gap?
It has to be driven by two things; first, education in secondary/higher schools and then also at home. At home, most middle-aged people still know the importance of STEM businesses, but perhaps not many of us emphasize this with our children. Industrial companies are increasingly experiencing tighter margins and we work longer hours in a scenario of greater pressure.
So perhaps we parents are almost envious of our children working in these new and more exciting industries. So we don’t ‘fight the STEM corner’ so to speak. Companies in very traditional sectors, such as agriculture and shoe manufacturing, are struggling to survive. Young people realize this and understandably look elsewhere for career opportunities.
It’s a gradual process, but if you compare job opportunities 20 years ago and imagine what they will look like 20 years from now, as a young person today you would ask yourself why you would want to pursue a career in what is seen as a seedy sector.
Could the government do more to close the STEM skills gap?
Yes, and I think learnings play a vital role in that. Again, using the theory that we are living in a rapidly changing world, I think some of the younger generations realize that university is not for everyone, so the more quality learning opportunities in STEM sectors the better.
I am a firm believer that once young people start working at these companies, they will not only quickly recognize their importance, but they will join a team and potentially advance and establish rewarding careers within them. The key is to place them in the 17-21 sector, giving them purpose and belief in life.
Do you see the responsibility falling on education or industry?
Both, it’s not as simplistic as one or the other. First, the question needs to be asked ‘why doesn’t education better promote STEM careers?’ Is it because the curriculum is too academically based? Or is education not relevant enough to real life real STEM environments?
Schools seem to be heavily focused on measuring their success based on exam results, making it difficult to educate students about the advantages of pursuing STEM careers, as these benefits cannot be quantified in the same way as exam results. From an industry perspective, especially Grupo Vita, we are passionate about attracting new talent, so any incentives we receive from the government are welcome.
Do you think Brexit had an impact? (refers to the lack of foreigners available to work here)
In truth. For a while after Brexit I think it was easy to blame Brexit for anything that went wrong, but I think the skills gap in STEM industries goes back over 20 years. These days, foreign workers are an established part of the manufacturing industry and while there has been a small exodus since Brexit, it is not significant enough to create this gap.
At the end of 2022, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported 120,000 job vacancies in ‘professional scientific and technical activities’ industries
Does the foam industry need foreigners to fill the skills gap?
The foam industry is a good example of how foreigners have played an important role in strengthening our industry. Being in the manufacturing sector, our industry is able to offer a variety of functions from manufacturing, administration, engineering, sales, accounting, etc.
In recent years, we have found it much more difficult to recruit local people, especially young people, because they are more attracted to lifestyle jobs such as social media influencers etc. fit perfectly into the foreign national scene. In addition, The Vita Group supplies globally and has a large presence in Europe, so we actually want to expand our nationality diversity across our UK factories.
How is Technical Foam Services playing a role in closing the STEM skills gap?
Vita Group is proactive in supporting the next generation, giving them opportunities to have a clear path forward. We demonstrate our commitment by offering internships, providing internal training programs and facilitating access to external training resources.
It can be incredibly rewarding to provide these opportunities for a younger person, which comes with an element of ‘risk’ if they don’t have previous manufacturing experience, to see them blossom in their role. I have four children who completed full-time education and now see them working full-time in various industries for companies that gave them a similar opportunity. Personally, I want Technical Foam Services to do the same, which is the same philosophy that is deeply ingrained across the Vita Group.
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