Changing trajectory: solving the UK’s STEM skills shortage

Posted on 18 Dec 2023 by The Manufacturer

Tim Slingsby, Director Skills and Education at global safety charity, Lloyd’s Register Foundation, explains the current situation with the UK’s STEM skills shortage and what can be done to solve it.

Science, technology, engineering, and maths, more commonly referred to as STEM are the foundations of global evolution but this acronym often leaves out other critical societal building blocks including communication and the arts. Propelling us forward in ways previously thought impossible, these practised subjects are crucial to solving many of the world’s biggest problems. Yet despite their importance, the UK is experiencing a STEM crisis with a widely reported lack of industry professionals compared to much of the rest of the world.

More than an abbreviation

The abbreviation of STEM risks overlooking the sheer enormity and variety of skills and talent involved in the field. A career in STEM can look drastically different, depending on the area of study. Whether it’s finding cures to diseases like cancer or learning the skills to build critical infrastructure, STEM is not a one-size-fits-all category and offers the possibility for anyone to shape and change the world.

Despite the importance and reliance global civilisation places on STEM skills, the UK’s current position in the field is worrying. By 2030, the UK could have as many as seven million jobs requiring STEM skills.1 As a nation, the UK is frankly being left behind, which is reflective of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills’ latest stats, which show how 43% of STEM vacancies in the UK are hard to fill due to a shortage of applicants.2

By the government’s own admission, “the issue of the UK’s skills gap is long-running” and “urgent action is needed.”3 In 2022, The House of Lords’ Science and Technology Committee led an inquiry into people and skills in UK STEM.4 This highlighted many areas which required urgent improvements, including a mismatch between the true scale of the problem and the solutions provided by the government itself.

Harnessing talent through education

The root problem of the UK’s STEM shortage lies in the way the education system works. In England and Wales, children sit their GCSEs in Years 10 and 11, and must choose their GCSE subjects aged just 13. In some schools this is even earlier. The problem arises when children reach 16 and must decide whether they want to sit A-levels or move onto other education or work-based routes. At 16, children are expected to know what they want to do, with the paths into their chosen career mapped out from college to university – especially in subjects such as medicine.

This suffocates the choice out of education and, ultimately, a career in STEM. At such a young age, the ability to try different things is being taken away from children in the UK as they follow the laid-out path into higher education. A lack of freedom to try different things is also resulting in lower uptake past the optional subject choices at school. Only 15,000 UK students, for example, sat a computing or ICT A-level in 2021, accounting for less than 2% of the overall exams sat.5

Clearly there is a disconnect between secondary and further education in terms of where a career in STEM can take you. The traditional UK education routes no longer provide flexibility to try various subjects before deciding on a longer-term career path – instilling a feeling of restriction in young people when it comes to a future in STEM. The misconception is that a career in this industry requires a set degree and an unmoveable path – this simply isn’t the case.

Changes needed

Targets made by the UK government will only go so far if our young people don’t feel encouraged or inspired to choose a career in STEM. Initial pledges made by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the beginning of 2023, aimed to put the UK on par with other countries in the study of mathematics until the age of 18.6  This will place the UK level with China, Taiwan, Brazil, Finland, and Israel, all of which have made the study of maths compulsory in final school years.7

When it comes to STEM education, the UK lacks the ability to try several different disciplines, which is practiced across other countries. In the USA, where there are similar STEM challenges to the UK, policies focus on exploiting Federal investment to increase students’ access and engagement in active, rigorous STEM-learning experiences.8  When looking for examples of a powerful STEM strategy, Finland’s recently published National STEM Strategy and Action Plan9 outlines a vision for the future, with the aim that by 2030 Finnish citizens will be able to improve their STEM skills as continuous learning throughout their life.

Another reason for the UK’s current position on low STEM uptake is that the bridge between education and employment is not made clear or accessible to students. For example, only 24% of STEM graduates in 2018 were employed in a STEM-based profession six months later.10 The UK economy is calling out for professionals in these industries and yet this huge disconnect between the education system and the workplace seems to only be growing. This is something noted in Sir John Holman’s Good Practical Science, which advocates for good practical sciences in school in response to historically lacking STEM career advice in UK education.11

Depleting diversity

This missing link between education and work is also apparent when looking at the UK’s STEM workforce figures. A recent Office for National Statistics (ONS) Labour Force survey found that in July-September 2022, 2.8 million people were employed in professional scientific and technical occupations.12 According to the same study, there were 125,000 vacancies in the industry between September-November 2022, the fourth highest figure among 18 industrial groupings.

One potential reason for the low uptake across the industry is the lack of diversity, which could act as a deterrent to future talent from ethnic minority backgrounds. The appearance of a career in STEM in the UK to the wider population is uninviting and stagnant with little change regarding those who sit in positions at the top. In attempts to paint a picture of the UK’s STEM landscape, The Royal Society conducted a survey13 to better understand the composition of the workforce.

According to the report, women are underrepresented in the most senior positions, while people with a disability are rarely hired in STEM roles.14 Black workers – as well as minority ethnics – are also 1.5 times less likely to have worked in a science-based career compared to white people, although they are overrepresented in the most senior and junior scientific roles. 15

This pattern is repeated across several other studies that looked at STEM workforce figures. The report on ‘Equity in the STEM workforce’ released by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on diversity and inclusion in STEM followed an eight-month enquiry into the sector.16 Worryingly, the results found that, while the percentage of ethnic minority workers in STEM was similar to the wider UK workforce, minoritised groups were amalgamated, skewing the data to appear more ethnically diverse than it actually was.17

The diversity issue in STEM is clearly complex and requires a multi-faceted approach from sector and policymakers to change perception of a career in STEM.

Making space for change

The good news for the UK is that there are signs that the tide could turn. The ‘Making Spaces’ project, led by UCL Professor Louise Archer, which launched in 2020 is one example. Funded by Lloyd’s Register Foundation, the initiative focuses on the emerging global phenomenon of ‘makerspaces’ – physical locations made for people to come together to create and collaborate.18 The project aims to bridge the inequalities in STEM and strives to encourage participation from underrepresented communities, through working in collaboration with practitioners.

In 2022, the Making Spaces initiative grew internationally while keeping the core focus of each session the same. Young people are encouraged to collaborate with each other through hands-on learning and creative projects. The physical spaces aim to break stereotypes of STEM subjects, encouraging creativity and providing purposed environments for underrepresented communities to come together and work toward a common goal.

Across the UK, the project is working with practitioners and young people from unsupported communities. Current programmes facilitate black, minority ethnic and white working-class young people, as well as those from the LGBTQ+ community and recent care leavers.19

The project has already had plenty of success stories that have solved useful and real-life challenges. At Knowle West Media Centre’s The Factory makerspace, one young person designed a fold-up backpack bed for homeless people which has since been prototyped. This solution highlights both a practical and empathetic design to make life slightly easier for the product users.20 By encouraging those from underrepresented communities to come together in hands on activities, the resulting inventions solve problems for ordinary people, living ordinary lives with extraordinary outcomes.

Acting for the future

While major changes and overhauls to the way STEM is taught in the UK predominantly rely on support and initiative from government, there are also companies that are making a difference by bringing together knowledge and shared skills from around the globe.

At Lloyd’s Register Foundation (LRF), for example, we work in partnership with various companies and organisations to encourage greater investment in capabilities, foster innovation and drive global skills development. One such partnership is LRF’s work with the Maritime Just Transition Taskforce. This is an unprecedented initiative to ensure that shipping’s response to the climate emergency puts seafarers at the heart of the solution, supported by globally established Just Transition principles. It seeks to strengthen and coordinate collaboration between governments, industry, workers, academia – and their representatives – towards a safe, equitable and human-centred approach to the transition towards a decarbonised shipping industry.

What’s next?

The disparity and need for change is unequivocal and undeniable. In 2021, a group of over 150 world-leading engineers, scientists, and technology giants, led by the IET, wrote an open letter to Prime Minister at the time, Boris Johnson, appealing for collaborative action on STEM education.21 The letter outlines the need for support at all levels including early education and future job opportunities.22


In recent years, the UK government has made progress on assessing the issue of diversity and inclusion in STEM. This is outlined in the Fifth Report of Session for 2022-23,23 which suggests improved data collection and a more inclusive pool of contextual examples to be used in the curriculum.

While all levels of society have a role to play in changing the narrative around the study and progression routes available in STEM, governmental leadership is required to turn the tide on a potentially lost generation of future shapers. It is imperative that those working in STEM reflect the wider population for accurate and proportional future answers to national and global problems. It is also important that employers have and manage equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) strategies that encourage everyone from all aspects of the socioeconomic spectrum to consider a technical career which will require open access and opportunity.

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