Government urged to plug STEM skills gap at earliest school age

In an open letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the influential group has appealed to the government to work together with educators and industry to develop practical support for teachers of young children and to embed engineering in their existing STEM learning.

The letter – signed by Major Tim Peake, Carol Vorderman MBE,, and industry representatives from Rolls Royce, Vodafone and the MOD, amongst others – calls on the government to join the campaign and contribute to securing the UK’s future as a nation of innovators, whose skills will become increasingly important in the coming decades to help tackle the global challenges posed by the ambition to reach net zero and meeting the pledges made at COP26.

In June this year, the IET’s own report – ‘Addressing the STEM skills shortage challenge’ – revealed an estimated shortfall of over 173,000 workers in the STEM sector, with an average of 10 unfilled roles per business in the UK. The IET’s latest ‘Skills Survey’ (based on research conducted by YouGov) identifies that almost half (49 per cent) of engineering businesses are experiencing difficulties in the skills available to them when trying to recruit.

However, this challenge has not appeared overnight. It is a growing issue which the IET has been tracking for the last 15 years – longer than the time it takes for a primary-aged child to complete their education. The pressure group argues that the lack of skills necessary for the future is a need that must be addressed now. The solution proposed is to embed engineering into primary school learning and help bridge the growing skills gap within UK workforces.

Professor Danielle George MBE, the outgoing IET President and an ambassador for ‘Engineering Kids’ Futures’, said: “To ‘build back better’ and fully embrace the ‘green industrial revolution’ promised by the government, it is essential to start with solid foundations. By adding more focus on misunderstood terms like engineering and technology – where we know there is a perception problem – it will help young people from all backgrounds learn vital engineering and tech skills early on and increase their career aspirations.

“We propose collaboration between the government, STEM education supporters, academia and industry to provide teachers with the tools to showcase that science, design and technology, and maths have vital elements of engineering within them and proactively encourage the teaching of engineering in our primary schools.

“This focus and support for schools is fundamental if we want to futureproof the next generation of engineers. These benefits extend far beyond the classroom – from higher earnings to better job satisfaction, our research shows that those in STEM careers can hit life goals, such as financial independence, much sooner than their peers.”

Amongst those supporting the IET’s ‘Engineering Kids’ Futures’ campaign is presenter, parent and sports science graduate Ore Oduba. A signatory to the open letter, Ore said: “As a parent of a young child due to start primary school in September next year, this campaign really resonated with me. Like most parents, I want my child’s education to inspire them; to get them excited about learning and how they can make a difference in the world. Teaching children vital skills in engineering and technology early on will not only allow them to understand the real-world applications of subjects like science, maths and design and technology, but also provide them with more opportunities to realise their passions and give them access to a greater pool of opportunities.”

Employers also agree that early education is fundamental in solving the skills gap. Andrew Smyth MEng MIET ARAeS, presenter and aerospace engineer at Rolls-Royce plc said: “Engineering and technology skills form the foundations of innovation, yet they’re not sufficiently prioritised in the UK’s education system. We want to change this. That’s why we’re supporting the IET’s call to the government to support #EngineeringKidsFutures.

“Data suggests that 65 per cent of our children will eventually work in a job that doesn’t yet exist. If we truly want to help the next generation of young workers thrive in a digital world, futureproofing their education must be a priority. It’s our duty of care as employers and business owners to provide children with equal opportunities to learn vital engineering and technology skills that will allow them to prosper in the modern workforce later in life.”

Ella Podmore MEng, materials engineer, McLaren Automotive, and IET Young Woman Engineer of the Year 2020, added: “Careers in engineering are inspired at an early age when your imagination knows no limits, which is why it is so important that we equip our teachers to excite the minds of our children in STEM. From supercars to space exploration, these exciting careers all have their beginnings in the school classroom.”

Together with representatives from world-leading institutions – including the Engineering Council, WISE, Engineering Development Trust, and Engineering in Motion, amongst others – and various STEM pioneers, the IET has signed the open letter to government calling for ‘Engineering Kids’ Futures’ to be formally introduced into schools by the next academic year (September 2022).

The letter has also been signed by representatives from over 150 of the UK’s leading engineering and technology employers, including Rolls Royce, Thames Water and EON.

Further information about the ‘Engineering Kids’ Future’ campaign – and how the public can get involved – is available from the IET website.