THE BLOG

The STEM Skills Shortage Is Even More Apparent for Start-Ups

25/04/2014 12:27 BST | Updated 24/06/2014 10:59 BST

The UK's STEM skills shortage was a widely discussed issue long before I graduated in 2010. As a new electrical and electronic engineering graduate of Imperial College London, I found myself in the enviable position of being "sought after" by blue chip companies. Sure enough, a recent Engineering UK Report found that engineers are the most in-demand professionals globally. I ended up taking what many would consider a dream job with Rolls-Royce. However, after a brief stint there, I realised corporate life was not for me and I embarked upon the challenge of starting my own business.

My two friends and I had travelled throughout the developing world while at university. This made us acutely aware that communities and businesses there were faced with terribly unreliable electrical supply. As a result, many were using kerosene - which causes all sorts of undesirable health complications - to fulfil their daily power needs. We began to develop a solution for these people - portable solar-powered battery boxes - which we then shipped out to communities in rural Uganda under our university charity, e.quinox. Our work through e.quinox made it immediately apparent that off-grid solar solutions had huge commercial potential throughout the entire developing world.

BBOXX was born in 2010 and, upon shunning employment, I suddenly found myself on the other side of the fence, facing that same dilemma as my would-be corporate employers - finding talented, qualified staff. For us, the challenge of finding the right staff was heightened by the fact that we were essentially competing against these blue chip companies. By the time I reached my final year at university, my peers had divided into two distinct groups - those that wanted to pursue traditional career paths within corporates and those that preferred entrepreneurial roles at start-ups. The lures of job stability, higher salaries and prestigious graduate training schemes ensured the "corporate" group was considerably larger.

At BBOXX, we compete with the big companies by offering our graduates incomparable experiences. Creating a culture in which people want to work - as well as a strong job purpose - is important. The main reason an engineering graduate from one of the world's top universities would want to join a company like ours is the opportunity to work at the forefront of product development and to take responsibility for creating systems that could ultimately solve huge world problems. We've sold more than 40,000 solar systems to date, bringing power to more than 200,000 people that previously had no electricity. We've helped power rural schools so that children can get a better education. We've helped local business owners extend their opening hours beyond those of daylight.

We need graduates that possess a rare mix - a talent for software engineering and a commercial mind. Finding the right staff is crucial - our salary budget is precious and the wrong hire can cost us money that would otherwise have been spent on important product development. However, without being able to find top engineering talent - from universities such as Imperial, Stanford, King's College and Manchester University - we would not be able to achieve our goals of developing a solar energy solution that is capable of reaching the entire marketplace.

Last year, Engineering UK called for increased collaboration across the engineering community to inspire school children to become engineers. By 2020, Engineering UK would like to see an increase in the number of engineering graduates, raising the total number to 87,000. Engineering UK also wants to see schools rolling out engineering programs that include access to independent careers guidance for children in years 8-13, as well as a 100 percent increase in the number of young people studying GCSE physics as part of triple sciences.

By 2020 there will be an estimated 2.74 million job openings, yet only 17% of young people have had STEM work experience. I really believe that more needs to be done to show young people that pursuing a STEM career is an option that should be looked into and I totally back Engineering UK's call to action. It is through these initiatives that more people will realise the vast opportunities available in the industry.

Despite our ongoing challenge, we've managed to find an excellent team at BBOXX, which is currently developing a GPS-based system that will allow customers to pay for solar energy as a monthly service rather than having to buy a kit outright. This system has the potential to unlock the whole market, providing a realistic solution to the 1.2 billion people that live in this world with no access to power. Our small team of engineers is responsible for this, and that is what attracts them to come and work for us. The freedom is theirs to contribute ideas, experiment with their skills and carve their own careers.

The work undertaken by STEM companies - both large and small - is extremely important, not just to our economic future, but to the development of our world. Only by ensuring an increased supply of high quality engineering talent will companies like ours be able to flourish.