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Ignorance over careers in science contributing to skills shortage

Confusion over the careers open to science graduates is contributing to the UK’s skills shortage in STEM industries, according to a panel of STEM leaders and academics.

Speaking at the Business in the Community (BITC) Responsible Business Week event in London, a panel chaired by HR magazine deputy editor Katie Jacobs discussed the lack of skilled employees available to STEM industries. They also highlighted the issue of diversity in such fields.

Louise Archer, professor at the department of education and professional studies, King's College London, revealed research that showed almost 80% of children under 18 believed scientists did valuable work. Despite this, less than 20% aspired to a career in the sciences.

“If you ask people what career options exist if you study science, most people can only think of scientists or doctors. Engineering is a very attractive, well paid career but people just aren't aware of it,” she said.

Archer added that business was often seen as a more attractive option for young people because of what she called the 'Alan Sugar effect'. "There are very visible routes into business and it's seen as an accessible career option, whereas science is seen as very elitist," she said. 

The panel discussed the age people need to be switched on to science as a career path. Jaguar Land Rover HR director Simon Lenton said that the company has a programme to talk to school children aged 10-14, focused on engaging girls.

He said only 16% of Jaguar Land Rover's staff were female, dropping to 5% on the shop floor. "The STEM skills shortage, especially for women, is very much problem for us,' he said. "Not just for us but our suppliers too. Often if we recruit someone skilled we'll have a call from our suppliers saying we've hired the only employee who can perform the particular role they were in."

Sally Martin, VP commercial services for global solutions downstream at Shell UK, said she has noticed some minor but irritating issues working in the male dominated area of engineering. "In one of my first jobs I had to walk half a mile to get to the female toilet," she said.

However, she stressed that being a woman in the sector was not all negative. She said: "Whatever disadvantages being a woman in this industry brings, they are far outweighed by the advantages."

Estelle Brachlianoff, executive vice-president of Veolia Environment UK & Northern Europe, said that people need to be more aware that manufacturing still exists in this country. She added that there is still a perception engineering and manufacturing industries all left the UK in the 1980s.

"If everyone thinks all the jobs have gone to Asia then why would they take up science as a career?" she said. "We need to change to thinking from 'why?' to why not?'"