Industrialised economies are struggling to emerge from one of the deepest recessions in memory. The so-called BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) in contrast have grown 97% in past ten years. Climate change. Urbanisation. Dwindling natural resources. Competition for human capital.
While some look at these challenges with despair, many companies and governments are already thinking differently and redesigning the way they operate in order to actually address these global challenges. They are positioning themselves to be part of the solution and in the process benefiting from their innovations and investments.
These transformations are already creating jobs and the demand for highly skilled workers will continue to rise. The biggest demand is going to be in the STEM-field (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths).
While that's all good news, the question that remains open: who is going to implement these strategies? Where are companies going to find the innovative minds they need to drive their plans forward? Before Europe, North America and Japan led the way but others are catching up quickly. As times are changing, so must the way we teach.
A few years ago as the recession was taking a firm grasp on industrialised economies around Europe and North America, a team of researchers from Norway noticed an interesting trend. Science and Technology studies and careers were of higher interest to students in emerging and developing economies than those in industrialised countries. There was also a big gap in Europe between boys and girls and their interest in pursuing STEM careers.
The European Union launched benchmarks for increasing the number of STEM graduates and to decrease the gender imbalance in this field. While many Member States have met or exceeded these benchmarks, we are still seeing a major unmet demand in the labour market for STEM professionals.
The same Norwegian researchers also uncovered some interesting perspectives from young people. While young people are among the most avid and adept users of technology, far better than me and most of my generation, only a small percentage of students translate their interest in technology to a future career. For most students, science seems a bit abstract and it is hard for them to see how their STEM studies can be applied to a career that complements their interests, aspirations and values.
Students need to understand the relevance of what they are learning in school, how it helps solve problems and what kinds of exciting new opportunities are available to them as a result.
We have joined forces with ExxonMobil to inspire a new generation of STEM leaders. Students in secondary schools, before they enter university, have the opportunity to meet a range of STEM leaders from the energy industry that explain the range of careers opportunities and share their real-life experiences with the students.
Students are later able to put their scientific and entrepreneurial minds to the test during our Sci-Tech Challenge events. At both the national and during the European final, students have 24 hours to design an innovative solution to a major energy challenge. More important than the ideas they develop, these innovation camps underscore the importance of combining entrepreneurship and STEM skills.
The value proposition of STEM careers is fundamental to lowering the gender imbalance in the scientific arena. As mentioned above, young people often choose careers based on their values. Young women are more drawn to people orientated careers and jobs in which they think they can help make a positive difference in the lives of other people. Yet a possible career in a STEM field is not associated with these values whereas the reality proves otherwise.
Perhaps most important of all, the programme helps to develop a range of transversal skills that can be applied to any job. Research has shown the cyclical interest and demand in STEM studies often reflects the economic conditions at the time and demand for STEM jobs. However, by the time students graduate there may not be labour demand in their particular field of study. By acquiring transversal job skills, STEM graduates can be more mobile and shift gears more easily than their peers that have not received such education.
In order to enable Europe's young people to be the agents of change and the recipients of a brighter future, we, as a community, need to do more to provide students with the skills and the motivation they need to succeed. This requires commitment from parents, teachers, business professionals, policy makers and students themselves. Addressing our future challenges by empowering our youth is a formula for success.