03/05/2012 07:55 BST | Updated 01/07/2012 06:12 BST

Tackling Industry Skills Shortages

I am often taken aback by the strength of employer opinion that there is a clear and present STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills shortage within the manufacturing and science sectors and that within these industries we are not doing enough to address the issue. I have recently spoken at meetings and taken part in conferences relating to manufacturing industries and it is clear that the combined forces of a critical shortage of STEM skills and the demographics of the UK, present a shared challenge that education and commerce need to work together to address.

While I have commented in previous blogs on the great role of inspirational teachers in the work to engage and support young people into careers associated with science, engineering and technology, several reports over recent years have indicated that a central factor required is employer engagement.

There are a number of organisations including Employers Education Taskforce, Business in the Community, EngineeringUK, and EDT, who are doing great work trying to facilitate employer/employee engagement with young people and schools. There are also quite a few large companies who have dedicated resources to manage their own engagement, but many companies simply can't do this.

The problem is that, particularly in the STEM related areas in which I work, we cannot get a sufficient volume of employers to engage on a sustained and consistent basis. There are so many more schools and students with whom we could engage if only we could get the required volume of company support. Most senior directors with whom I liaise recognise the importance of engaging with education, particularly when the reality is that the demographic challenge means that even to stand still on recruitment in to STEM jobs they need to increase the proportions of school leavers entering STEM industries. These directors see the benefits to the business and generally show support for action; however, the process of engagement can still be slow and inconsistent, with difficulties in embedding the necessary budget and action through their organisations.

When it comes to the cost for these activities I realise it is often about perception of value. An example: it costs us about £500 to arrange, operate and administer a visit of a party of students to a local company; ok we can argue about the precise costs, but the point is that there is a cost. Some company reaction we get is: " want us to pay as well as opening our doors?" Well, yes, someone has to cover the cost. Many think they can do it themselves and don't need the likes of EDT, which is fine. But can they do it on a sustainable and consistent manner, with evaluation of impact to ensure that the students get the benefit? Certainly not for less than it costs the organisations that specialise in this area. I am sure companies realise this when they think about it, but it's just the perception and the cash value from already strapped budgets which causes many to step back when they need to step forward.

Having spent 30 years in industry I suppose I shouldn't be surprised how difficult it is to get the costs for these activities recognised and embedded in the budgeting process. Many people we come across believe that the costs will be covered by someone else, and that engagement with education can be left to the good intentions and commitment of employees working with schools and teachers. Let me be clear at this point; we work with many committed and dedicated employees who give of their time to support what we and others do. Long may this continue; they are to be applauded and should be recognised more within their companies. However, it is only by embedding it in the organisation and strategy that the benefits of engagement will be seen both for the company and the young people.

A good example of a company that we have worked with for many years is Sharp Laboratories of Europe, where the Managing Director Dr Stephen Bold has taken a personal interest. When I asked him recently why Sharp has been such a strong supporter of the curriculum based industry visits we have been organising on their behalf these past eight years, his answer slightly surprised me:

"The members of the lab who have regularly shown their work to year 11 students stand out a mile. We have wonderfully clever people here but not all scientists are natural communicators. Seeing your work through the eyes of 16 year olds and learning how to present so that you keep them on the edge of their seats are great skills to have. So it shows who has done that, and they are superb at presenting projects to senior managers. If you can get your ideas across to year 11 students, then main boards are easy."

Now this employee CPD is only one of many benefits to companies from engagement. Others relate to profile, recruitment and project work with older students, and that's even before the CSR agenda which I think will gradually be replaced by the concept of Creating Shared Values which Prof Michael Porter (he of the Porter's forces) has been working on recently.

But I come back to the main objective, which is to get more young people really interested in following a STEM related career. Given the numbers we shall have to recruit into STEM industries in the next few years, we need many more employers to engage on a sustained basis to develop the necessary momentum and direction. Embedding the costs in to their budget and planning processes will enable their involvement to make a significant contribution to the solution of the STEM skills shortage.