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Comment: Bridging the gap that's slowing UK economic recovery

There are plenty of practical things UK industry and academia can do to tackle the country's shortage of technical skills, says Dr Coorous Mohtadi

Technology accelerates change, and every stage in history has evolved the human mind. Whether it is a radical leap forward or a purely evolutionary advance, the current growth of technology and innovation in industry is not only driving the economy but also creating an increasing demand for graduates in science, technology, engineering and maths – STEM.

This trend is well documented, but debates about how we meet the growing need continue. Technology moves faster than our educational systems, and our effort to keep pace has become more frenetic, leading us to question whether we are in charge of technology or is technology in charge of us.

Engineers, designers and developers are more innovative than ever before. But in the UK we still face a substantial skills gap that stops the country from reaching its full technological and economic potential. Last year's Employer Skills Survey, carried out by the Commission for Employment and Skills, highlighted the fact that too many organisations find it hard to recruit the skilled people they need. Semta, the sector skills council for science, engineering and manufacturing technologies, has warned that the UK is facing a shortfall of 80,000 workers within the next two years alone, and the Confederation of British Industry believes that a national shortage of graduates with advanced skills in these areas risks slowing economic recovery.

How do we bridge the gap? The two main causes are a shortage of people taking STEM subjects and the skills of graduates not meeting the needs of industry. Many graduates are bright and know the fundamentals, but employers seek individuals who also have practical skills. And with too few graduates coming through to keep up with the growth in these industries, employers are also finding that workforces that were once perfectly proficient are now unable to do the required job.

MathWorks recently updated a survey it initiated last year with polling expert YouGov to look into the extent of the UK skills gap. The new study revealed that the vast majority of academics still believe there is a substantial skills gap and estimate it could take more than 20 years to close, if ever. Most felt this shortfall could increase without further industry investment and more collaboration with academia.

There are many examples of initiatives to address the STEM skills gap at university level, including collaboration between industry and academia, but the STEM Skills Gap Report shows that investment is also required at an earlier age. Teachers and parents need to start early on in education to excite students about STEM subjects and later raise awareness of the diversity of careers open to graduates.

Project-based learning, which engages students in hands-on investigation of science and engineering problems without a predefined solution, should be embraced as a complement to other teaching methods. It not only helps solidify concepts learned in the classroom and bring theory to life, but also helps students develop key skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving and collaboration.

It may be helpful to integrate low-cost hardware such as Raspberry Pi and Arduino into the curriculum, letting students learn the techniques and methodology they will be using in industry.

The maker movement is growing in the UK and is helping to drive innovation as well as develop skills. Maker Spaces provide excellent environments for like-minded people to come together and innovate, bringing their projects to life and encouraging interest in STEM-based careers. It's not going to solve the skills gap in isolation, but collaboration and sharing ideas help people develop skills and inspire others.

Academia and industry both have their parts to play. There are already opportunities to help teachers bridge the theory-practical divide, and it is vital that these continue to grow. To produce tech-savvy workforces, the heavy lifting has to happen in schools with industry support.

Dr Coorous Mohtadi is a senior academic technical specialist with MathWorks (uk.mathworks.com).

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