Future innovation needs T- shaped skills
24 July 2012
Today (Tuesday 24 July) the Lords Science and Technology Committee published a detailed report into Higher Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths Subjects (STEM) . The paper rightly highlights that we simply don’t have enough good quality science graduates to drive innovation and growth.
Headlines this morning have understandably focused on the call to drive up quality in STEM graduates by increasing the entry standards in terms of mathematical ability. Highlighting a STEM quality issue is absolutely correct. These conclusions match the results of our work in 2010. We noted that STEM seems to be a puzzle. The proportion of the UK’s graduates entering STEM courses is among the highest in the OECD, and the proportion of science graduates among 25-34 year olds in employment is also high by comparison with other developed economies. Also, significant effort has been made to increase uptake and attainment in STEM subjects. This has been increasing at all levels without alleviating perceived shortages. The only plausible explanation is that we are not producing graduates with the right qualities to meet demand from employers.
However, pure technical ability is was only part of the story. Driving up maths standards will not address the broader concerns that many employers share that STEM graduates lack broader "employability skills". These are always tough to pin down or define precisely, and many would call on employers to train up recent graduates to build these skills, but it does look like many STEM graduates lack key communication and team working skills. Individuals who have strong technical abilities and an ability to communicate effectively are highly prized in our labour market in many sectors. We don’t just need more able STEM graduates, we need more individuals with a ‘T-shaped' skills profile - where the spine of the T represents subject knowledge and the cross bar represents leadership and communication skills to work across disciplines and teams. Initiatives such as multi-disciplinary projects and design challenges seem to offer interesting ways to build this type of training into STEM courses.
Innovation will depend on us not only mastering new technologies, but also finding connections to markets, developing new business models, attracting finance and running rapidly growing companies. While we can’t expect many STEM graduates to hold all of these competencies, an ability to work in a group and to effectively share knowledge must be a pre-requisite for working in a modern economy.
Employers must also play a role and look at how they recruit and retain talent. According to research by Highfliers, the entry level salary for graduates in engineering roles is below almost all other professional industries, while highly numerate engineering graduates are highly attractive to employers in finance, consulting, oil and energy who are willing and able to pay much more. Salary data suggests engineers do catch up with more experience - but it may now be necessary to frontload this. Evidence also shows that female STEM graduates are far less likely to pursue careers in STEM industries - often due to workplace environment and location.
The report is absolutely right however to flag the issues which current immigration policy is creating for STEM institutions. Our research, published last month , identified just how important it is for departments to be able to attract and retain the international students who make up most of our STEM post-graduate population. Tighter work visa restrictions on recent graduates look likely to impact on these departments by hitting demand.