Towards the end of 2022, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) reported 120,0001 job vacancies in the ‘professional scientific and technical activities’ industries, the fourth largest number from the data collected.
As part of the ‘Levelling Up’ initiative, the government is committed to getting 200,000 people working in STEM fields by 2030 in a bid to close the skills gap. Data shows that the beginning of 2023 had nearly 6% more people2 working in the above industries compared to the end of 2022. This is promising – but there is still a long way to.
Technical Foam Services (part of Vita Group) supply industrial rubber and foam conversion services to companies all over the world. They are experiencing less talent coming through to the industry with what technical sales manager Duncan Geddes notes as “not a highly visible sector”.
Below, Duncan shares his thoughts on the wider STEM skills gap and what efforts need to be made to close this gap.
Why do you think there is a skills gap in STEM industries?
This is unfortunately symbolic of the changing world we live in. A rapidly increasing number of the younger generation, are not excited about entering traditionally academic-led industries, they are more enticed about working in lifestyle sectors such as media influencing, online work, etc. Not only are these seen as being more glamorous, but they are also seen as more likely to make you wealthy, quicker. STEM businesses are often more secure, and offer longer careers, but where people used to place a high value on long-term careers, nowadays youngsters do not look that far forward. Granted, technology is probably appealing, but science, engineering, and maths less so.
What else do you think needs to be done on a wider scale to close the STEM skills gap?
It has to be driven by two things; firstly, education in secondary/upper schools, and then also at home. Education I will address in question four, but at home most middle-aged people still know the importance of STEM businesses, but perhaps not many of us emphasise that with our children. Industrial companies are increasingly having their margins squeezed and we work longer hours against a backdrop of more pressure. Therefore, maybe us parents are almost envious of our children working in these new, more exciting sectors. Hence, we do not ‘fight the STEM corner’ so to speak. Companies in very traditional sectors such as farming, and footwear manufacturing are struggling to survive. Youngsters see this and understandably look elsewhere for career opportunities. It is a gradual process, but if you compare the employment opportunities from 20 years ago, and envisage how they will look in 20 years from now, as a youngster today you would question why you would want to pursue a career in what are viewed as declining sectors.
Do you think the government can do more to close the STEM skills gap?
Yes, and I think apprenticeships play a vital part in this. Again, using the theory that we are living in a rapidly changing world, I do think some of the younger generations realise that university is not for everyone, so the more quality apprenticeship opportunities in the STEM sectors, the better. I strongly believe that as soon as young individuals commence their employment in these companies, they will not only swiftly recognise their significance but also integrate themselves into a team and potentially advance and establish fulfilling careers within them. The key is getting them into the sector at the ages of 17 to 21, giving them purpose and belief in life.
Do you see the responsibility lying with schools (education) or the industry?
Both, it is not as simplistic as one or the other. Firstly, the question needs to be asked “why does education not better promote careers in STEM?” Is it because the curriculum is too academically based? Or is education not relevant enough to actual real-life working in STEM environments? Schools appear to be heavily focused on measuring their success based on exam results, making it challenging to educate students about the advantages of pursuing STEM careers, as these benefits cannot be quantified in the same manner as exam outcomes. From an industry point of view, especially The Vita Group, we are passionate about attracting new talent, so any incentives we receive from the Government, are welcome.
Do you think Brexit has had an impact? (Lack of foreign nationals available to work here)
Not really at all. For a while post 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 20+ years. Nowadays, foreign workers are a settled part of the manufacturing industry, and although there has been a small exodus since Brexit, it is not significant enough to create this gap.
Is the foam industry one for needing these foreign nationals to plug the skills shortage?
The foam industry is probably a very good example of how foreign nationals have played an important part of boosting our sector. Being in the manufacturing sector, our industry is able to offer a variety of roles from manufacturing, administration, engineering, sales, accounts etc. We have found it much harder in recent years to recruit local people, especially youngsters, because they are more attracted to the lifestyle jobs, such as social media influencers, etc. As our industry is so diverse in the range of skills that are needed, we 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 widen our diversity of nationalities in our British factories.
How is TFS playing a part in closing the STEM skills gap?
The Vita Group are proactive about supporting the next generation, giving them opportunities so they have a clear pathway of progression. We demonstrate our commitment by offering apprenticeships, providing internal training programmes, and facilitating access to external training resources. It can be incredibly gratifying providing these opportunities for a younger person, which comes with an element of ‘risk’ if they have no previous manufacturing experience, to then see them flourish in their role. I have four kids who have all completed full-time education, and I see them now working full-time in various industries for companies that have given them a similar opportunity. I personally want TFS to do the same, which is the same philosophy deeply engrained throughout The Vita Group.