Perceptions of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM subjects) have been changing over last decade, and everyone accepts that the impact of technology will continue to transform the world for generations to come.
No longer are the scientists, mathematicians and engineers pigeon-holed as geeks. In fact, even geeks aren’t pigeon-holed as geeks, and often lead the field in popular culture. Professor Brian Cox’s physics lectures sell out in UK theatres, David Attenborough is lauded a national treasure with his ‘Blue Planet’ BBC TV series, and pioneers in computing such as Alan Turing are celebrated in ground-breaking films.
Science and technology underpin our lives to a greater extent each year, and our dependence on it is perhaps becoming more transparent with the average number of connected devices per person rising to 3.5 in the last five years.
In the workplace, skills in the STEM subjects are of vital importance to the fabric and infrastructure of modern lives, and we overlook these disciplines at our peril.
The Government has demonstrated its commitment to investing in the future of STEM and construction. The Budget in November 2017 included £27M to support the teaching of maths in schools, with £49M devoted to maths GCSE re-sits. A six-figure funding grant will be awarded for specialist maths schools, and the number of computer science teachers will triple.
A commitment to the future of the construction industry has been signalled with a pledge for £34 million towards teaching construction skills. The Government, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) are working together to launch a National Retraining Scheme to help people gain the skills they need to enjoy meaningful careers.
There has also been a government commitment of over £5M to support a centre of excellence in Cambridge dedicated to transforming the construction sector through digital technologies.
Why technical skills are important
The UK’s Industrial Strategy is focused on improving productivity, and skills development plays a vital role in achieving the targets.
The Government acknowledges that the UK has a proud heritage of research and innovation but has been poor historically at monetising its success by turning its discoveries into viable and profitable businesses.
Furthermore, there is an endemic shortage of higher level skills in the UK. Employers repeatedly report skills gaps in the labour market, and unfilled vacancies represent a serious risk to the ability of businesses to deliver their strategic objectives.
The impact of increasing automation and use of technology has historically been seen as the herald of a shrinking job market. In fact, it has only served to raise the bar in terms of skills. The new employment is beginning to eliminate the ‘donkey work’, and technology only serves to demand more from the performance of humans, requiring higher levels of understanding, cognitive ability and technological expertise.
This drive to improve skills is being supported by the further education sector with its commitment to apprenticeships, and technical and professional education as a viable alternative pathway to the traditional academic route.
In the face of future skills shortages, a significant gap remains in the gender disparity in some sectors. Women in construction still only represent 13% of the workforce, and gender stereotypes persist as culture change moves slowly.
What we are seeing the dawn of a new age, recognised and supported by central government, that will place the STEM and construction sector at the forefront of future economic growth and productivity. It will require a long-term culture change, but we can all be proud of our part in bringing that change to fruition.