How has industry responded to the STEM skills crisis?

Dr Gordon Mizner reflects on the success of manufacturing and associated industries in engaging with young people to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers.

Gordon Mizner introducing Industrial Cadets to HRH The Prince of Wales in Redcar - image courtesy of EDT.
Gordon Mizner introducing Industrial Cadets to HRH The Prince of Wales in Redcar – image courtesy of EDT.

When I joined the Engineering Development Trust (EDT) as chief executive in 2005, the two core offerings of the Trust were the Engineering Education Scheme (EES) and the Year in Industry (YINI).

Both schemes focused on young people who were towards the end of their school education and who were already on the path to an engineering or technical career.

Both schemes are still going strong and are still highly regarded by employers and students, and indeed, have been shown over the years to have significant impact.

However, from this base activity, the shape and offerings of the Trust have now changed completely.

Skills gap

The changes in EDT were largely triggered by changes in the world of STEM skills and the recognition around the time of my appointment of a looming skills crisis.

Institutions and industry identified a future gap whereby the numbers of young people following STEM pathways was significantly lower than the sum of those retiring from the professions and those needed to resource industry growth.

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Developing a consensus within STEM industries that a skills gap really was upon us, was an important step in the right direction – our objective was to considerably increase the proportion of students leaving school with qualifications and ambitions to take them into the STEM talent pipeline.

Research highlighted that focusing STEM experiences at younger children and ensuring they had many, varied employer-connected interventions over their school careers, were important in maintaining STEM interest.

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Research also identified hard-to-reach groups, the best known of these is girls, where low proportions come through into STEM industry.

Research also identified hard-to-reach groups. The best known of these is girls, where low proportions come through into STEM industry, but also economically and socially disadvantaged groups and ethnic minorities can be hard to direct into STEM employment.

For organisations like EDT, working at the coalface of employer/school engagement, these strands of understanding led us to review our programme offering.

It was clear we needed to include the full range of STEM subjects and better reflect the newer and emerging industries and technologies.

We also put effort into extending our activities into early secondary school age, and recently we have started the move into primary.

The need for targeted programmes addressing hard-to-reach groups was met by EDT’s ‘First Edition’ group of programmes, particularly developing specific programmes for girls and achieving 50% female participation in our Go4SET programme for 12-14 year olds.

Industrial Cadets

The STEM industry focus on the skills gap has built an impressive momentum in STEM engagement work of all types, but this has required a new focus on quality. This is where the Industrial Cadets initiative, inspired by HRH The Prince of Wales and co-ordinated by EDT, has a major role to play.

Industrial Cadets is effectively a quality standard for STEM engagement programmes. Any programme can be measured against the Industrial Cadets framework to check it has important key elements in place that allow effective STEM skills engagement activity.

Students who complete accredited courses receive an Industrial Cadet award that can appear on their CVs and which allows them to manage their skills experience journey; it also enables employers to be confident about the programme they have completed.

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Students who complete accredited courses receive an Industrial Cadet award that can appear on their CVs and which allows them to manage their skills experience journey.

This is an important initiative to ensure that best value is achieved from investment in STEM activity and I am hopeful that wide take up of Industrial Cadets across STEM industry will enable the delivery of increasingly effective programmes and will enable any that are presently weak to be strengthened in key areas.

I know people will ask me if there are things that STEM employers could have done better, but any regrets are probably the wisdom of hindsight.

I do wish that the consensus about the need for action about the skills gap had penetrated more quickly into the DNA of many employers, so that more STEM engagement was based on a strategic imperative, not simply a nice bit of corporate social responsibility activity.

I wish that more HR departments had seen the importance of schools engagement to talent pipeline management and had brought their training expertise to bear on STEM experiences.

And, I wish that STEM industries had been more effective in bringing all sizes of companies on board with employer/education linking efforts.

Some of the most inspiring and effective programmes I have seen have been run by small companies who can perhaps communicate their passion for science and engineering to young people in ways that major employers cannot.

At EDT, we may not been perfect in our own contribution on these issues, but I am delighted with what we have achieved together and the response we have made to changing times.

I believe the programmes we are delivering in 2017 provide a benchmark for what can be achieved with STEM engagement and that Industrial Cadets offers a quality mark that schools and employers can rely on – and importantly – that young people can be proud to achieve.

Yes, I have a sadness that it is time to step aside, but I think that EDT and the whole of the STEM education system is now in a good place to press forward to achieve our goal, which is to provide young people with experiences which advance their STEM careers options and skills development, and in so doing prevent a shortage of STEM skills from being a major constraint on the success of UK industry.


Dr Gordon Mizner is the retiring chief executive of EDT (the Engineering Development Trust).