Jobs and the Future of Work

What can employers do to combat STEM talent shortages?

There is a global shortage of STEM-proficient workers.

There is a global shortage of STEM-proficient workers. Image: SThree.

Timo Lehne
Chief Executive Officer, SThree
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  • In the face of a global STEM talent crisis, it's crucial for employers to innovate and strategize.
  • Automation and AI are changing the skillsets required and the skills shortage is affecting our ability to facilitate the energy transition.
  • Companies can address this through collaborations with educational institutions – encouraging diversity and expanding the talent pool.
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A global shortage of workers with science, engineering, technology and mathematics (STEM) skills raises important questions:

  • How will leading economies embrace the digital opportunity without the right talent?
  • How will policy-makers play their part in supporting innovation?

And most importantly for hiring employers: how will individual companies meet their STEM talent needs?

This is not to let policy-makers off the hook. But the impact of policy changes is usually slow, so in the meantime companies need the right strategies to compete and win the best STEM talent.

STEM-proficient workers are in short supply almost everywhere. In Europe, close to half of businesses are struggling to recruit people with the STEM skills they need. In the US, 45% of STEM employees with a PhD are foreign-born.

Even in Asia, where many governments invest heavily in education, countries like Japan have seen STEM graduate numbers flatline in recent years. The consequences of these shortages could be dire.

Automation and artificial intelligence (AI) will increasingly support workers by taking care of time-consuming manual tasks. But that also means the skillsets expected of employees are changing. Those without new STEM competencies are increasingly struggling to compete in the labour market.

The World Economic Forum describes scientific literacy and information and communications technology (ICT) proficiency as foundational skills that all 21st-century workers need.

Employers, meanwhile, struggle to fill new types of roles that demand expertise in fields such as data analytics, machine learning and software engineering.

Get involved in the next generation

Only governments and policy-makers can address some of the core issues of this STEM shortage. This is particularly true when it comes to education.

But if your company has skin in the game, it could get privileged access to next-generation STEM experts. There are exciting opportunities for increased collaboration between STEM businesses and educational institutions at every level.

In Rwanda, for example, the Ministry of Education has partnered with Microsoft and Keza to improve the quality of STEM education in its schools.

The University of Cambridge, meanwhile, has launched a partnership with Urenco – an example for collaboration in higher education. The nuclear energy specialist contributes to research and gives input into the university’s STEM curriculum. In return, the company gets “access [to] a pipeline of potential future employees”.

Internships are another way to attract students later on in their education. NASA embraces this opportunity, offering a range of these programmes to students across the US.

Similarly, STEM-focused businesses can offer apprenticeships. Graduates from these programmes often stay with the employer. This is popular in countries like France, where apprenticeship schemes between companies and the country’s internationally renowned grandes écoles are expanding rapidly.

Encouraging diversity is often a valuable focus of these initiatives. Supporting groups that are currently under-represented in the STEM workforce – women account for only 29% of STEM workers in the UK, for instance – is a crucial way to expand the pipeline of future talent.

Exploring visa sponsorship schemes to recruit from overseas is another way to fill skills gaps.

One size fits no one

Many new recruits will be younger workers, but don’t neglect other demographics. SThree’s research shows that STEM professionals over the age of 50 are more likely to be unhappy with elements of their working life, including how engaging and inspiring they find their day-to-day work. They’re also more likely to be dissatisfied with salaries, other rewards and recognition.

Lifelong learning and professional development are highly prized by STEM workers – after all, they work in fields that are evolving at pace. Almost one in six job vacancies in computing and mathematical fields in 2007 asked for a skill that was obsolete just 12 years later.

No wonder almost half of STEM professionals want a role where they will learn the latest skills, even if this means earning less.

Recruit and retain

But recruitment is only half the job. Employers must also work hard to retain the STEM talent they attract.

Start by developing a much more granular understanding of what makes an attractive workplace for your employees:

  • What benefits do they value as part of the overall remuneration package
  • What are they looking for in terms of hybrid and flexible working opportunities?
  • How can you create a working culture that engages and inspires staff?

Concentrate on your organization’s retention strategies and you will benefit from a virtuous circle, with recruitment improving too.

Positive employee ratings on increasingly influential sites such as Glassdoor are likely to increase, and current staff will be more likely to recommend the company to their networks and make referrals. Building the right employer brand is crucial here. In time – but almost certainly more quickly than any policy change – all these measures will encourage both recruitment and retention.

You might need to take short-term measures to fill the gap – hiring contract workers, perhaps, and using flexible staffing.

In the long run, however, only employers with a more holistic strategy will successfully address their skills gaps in STEM.

What employers can do next

The bottom line? Employers need to stop talking about STEM talent gaps and start working towards closing them. In particular:

  • Identify where new technologies can support skills and where new skills are needed.
  • Work out how to use your employer brand to stand out.
  • Blend flexible staffing solutions with traditional hiring.
  • Make the most of the ageing workforce by upskilling older workers.
  • Put diversity at the centre of your recruitment and retention.
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