THE BLOG

Powering the Next Generation of Technologists

22/12/2014 13:22 GMT | Updated 21/02/2015 10:59 GMT

At this time of year, with the latest devices and gadgets packed, parceled and delivered, it's easy to take for granted all the astounding innovations that now constitute everyday technology; from last minute shopping at the click of a button, to video calls that allow us to connect with relatives and loved ones across continents - even in the remotest of regions.

These inventions continue to change the way people live their lives, how companies do business, and how governments serve their citizens, but could the stream of innovators that create these breakthroughs be about to run dry?

If the figures are to be believed, Europe could be on the brink of running out of skilled workers - particularly scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians (aka STEM fields). While sceptics say this is just fear mongering to drive more students towards the sciences, the threat remains and we could be on the brink of an innovation shortfall.

A CBI survey earlier this year revealed that almost half (42 per cent) of UK firms currently recruiting in the engineering and tech sectors are experiencing difficulties finding candidates with core STEM based credentials.

As a graduate of engineering myself, I find this both surprising and deeply concerning. The career paths and experiences open to STEM graduates are second to none. What's more, in today's ultra-competitive graduate jobs market, STEM fields continue to open doors to new and exciting opportunities.

But as things stand, the rate of new STEM jobs in the UK will outpace the rate of fresh graduates capable of filling these roles.

How important is STEM to innovation?

It's remarkable just how much innovation is grounded in STEM. From drone crafts delivering Christmas presents, to apps that allow you to track your family's health from your smartphone, STEM remains the driver of these innovations.

This is a principle that has held true for generations - and one that I have managed to instil in my own family, with two of my children currently studying at the Telecommunications School of Engineering. My wife is also a Telecommunications Engineer! Producing graduates in STEM fields is a sure-fire way to ensure that the next generation will have the ample technical resources to build upon the technological advances of today.

Earlier this month, UK Prime Minister David Cameron reinforced this message when he announced plans to open a National College for Digital Skills in London in 2015, to enhance economic competitiveness in the "global race".

Of course, that's not to say that a Master's Degree in a STEM field is a prerequisite to unlocking innovation. In fact many organisations, such as The Prince's Trust, are lobbying Government to do more to fill skilled vacancies by up skilling the vast number of unemployed young people here in the UK.

One of the most important responsibilities that companies currently have is to create more jobs for young people. Contributing to society is as important as making profit for shareholders. Recent figures from the LGA reveal that the number of 16 to 24 year olds out of work for more than two years has quadrupled in the past decade. So perhaps the answer to the skills crunch is to help young people understand technology and provide them with the knowledge and practical experience needed to fill these STEM roles.

Making STEM more attractive to students

I count myself fortunate that my father, also a Telecommunications Engineer, introduced me to the STEM fields at an early age. His passion nurtured my curiosity in science and mathematics and helped me land my first job as a teaching assistant in a university physics laboratory. This was the start of a long road that has now led me to heading up the global business arm of a multinational telecommunications company.

I'm certainly not the only one of my peers to have made the transition from a more traditional STEM career - as an engineer - into the world of business. Many of Silicon Valley's most famous success stories - Apple to Facebook - owe their success to a passionate founder with a career in STEM.

But the challenge, in my opinion, is two-fold. First, how do we support and inspire this passion amongst those who are interested in STEM and convert this into careers. And second, how do we make STEM more attractive to students who are shying away from it? Put simply, how do we motivate more students to specialise in STEM fields?

One encouraging initiative looking to do this is the 'Your Life' campaign. Backed by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and with strong cross-party and business support, the scheme is looking to change the way young people look at STEM. This is a great first step.

It's also encouraging to see that the government has recently allocated £385m for STEM university facilities and to support teaching, with another £20m allocated to encourage more large organisations, like ours, to offer IT degree apprenticeships in an attempt to shrink the UK IT skills gap. Signs like these are all positive, as were reports earlier this year that the number of students entering STEM courses is at a record high. On top of this, many businesses are actively ramping up their recruitment of graduates and apprentices for STEM roles. But the number of graduates is still some way behind the growing rate of demand for these kinds of skilled professionals.

Whether it is reducing tuition fees, bringing in more vocational or foundation courses, or simply making STEM a more attractive career path for students, training the next generation of technologists could be vital to sustaining the health of the economy. We should all be taking an active role to ensure that the innovation pond continues pulses with new ideas- and that creativity and innovation in technology - and in our day-to-day working lives - surges forward.