Taking away the ‘fear factor’ could help raise the profile of science, technology, engineering and maths careers – especially among female pupils
How to encourage more young people, particularly female students, to study science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects and go on to apprenticeships is an ever-growing problem.
UK businesses are desperate to fill thousands of vacant Stem-related jobs, a situation exacerbated by the increasing “Brexit” effect on the number of skilled workers from other EU countries. According to research from Stem Learning, the university-based and government-backed national organisation set up to provide Stem education and careers support, the UK industry is spending £1.5bn per annum on closing a shortfall last year estimated to be around 173,000 skilled workers.
“Employer involvement is key,” says chief executive Yvonne Baker, “and not just in providing careers information and talks, but also in helping teachers show young people the ways in which Stem subjects contribute to the world today and how they can be part of that. That’s why we help schools and employers work together sustainably – creating partnerships that last.”
Stem Learning sets up collaborations with mainstream schools and finds businesses that want to support and then fund them. It runs a national scheme to reverse steadily falling numbers of less academic GCSE pupils taking up Stem subjects and then apprenticeships.
“We need to focus on students missing out on opportunities they don’t know exist,” says Rachael Green, lead teacher for a group of four secondary schools in the north-east taking part in the scheme. “Pupils don’t see Stem subjects as relevant if they are not going to take A-levels.”
The schools have already notched up 340 hours of training last year for at least a dozen secondary teachers on how to give careers and application advice. Training continues until July this year.
The earlier that children (particularly girls, who still lag well behind boys in taking up Stem subjects at secondary school) are shown the fun side of engineering, the more likely it is to spark their long-term interest. It’s a view shared by the University of Warwick, a leading supporter of Stem subjects across the education sector, which sponsors two successful university technical colleges (UTCs) and its own WMG (Warwick Manufacturing Group) faculty that champions and supports young engineers, scientists and technologists through “research, education and knowledge transfer”. Last year, it held an engineering day for all the family, including hands-on activities involving reassembling engines, a bicycle-powered smoothie maker, 3D printing, and brain-controlled Scalextric races.
In fact, Warwick is a major backer of two UTCs in Coventry and Solihull, dedicated to teaching Stem subjects to students aged 14-19. The WMG academies in Coventry (graded “good” by Ofsted) and Solihull are supported by key manufacturers, including Aston Martin and Jaguar Land Rover. One of the Coventry UTC’s key academic results last year was 15% of all leavers going on take to degree apprenticeships at universities across the UK.
Meanwhile, further education (FE) colleges remain undaunted by the hardest of tasks: convincing cohorts of often underachieving 16- to 18-year-olds that they can study subjects they consider are only for higher academic achievers. Barking & Dagenham College (BDC) has one of only four specialist FE Stem provision centres nationally.
“Part of our remit is to convince them subliminally that, yes, they can do engineering, science, coding. We take them out of the classroom, deliver the subjects differently and facilitate learning in other college subjects,” says Errol Seaman, Stem development lead.Advertisement
“For instance, a sports teacher had students studying anatomy and physiology who could not differentiate between ligaments and tendons in muscles. We got them to dissect chicken legs. We also use gamification and introduce teamwork and competition. It’s hands-on learning.”
In fact, the college is seeing its biggest growth in Stem apprenticeships. “We’re bucking the trend,” says principal Yvonne Kelly. “We’re making Stem subjects real and taking away the fear factor.”
Encouraging more female students to take up Stem subjects and apprenticeships is another huge challenge for colleges and universities – just 8.2% of core Stem apprentices are women. There are simple things colleges and universities can do to make a change. Farnborough College of Technology, for example, has videoed female students talking about their day-to-day courses during the annual National Women in Engineering day (this year on June 23), focusing on the subject rather than delivery method. The college also features its female apprentices on the front of its apprenticeship brochure.
Often it is a case of merely removing misconceptions about what engineering and other Stem sectors are like to work in. Images of oily rags and sweaty bodies under cars are a far cry from the clean environment now common in most Stem orientated businesses.
Awards such as DevelopHER, an annual not-for-profit initiative recognising women working in East Anglia’s technology sector, play a key role in raising the profile of Stem career opportunities for women.
There is still a very long way to go, but campaigning organisation Wise (women in Stem workforce) shows that significant progress is being made: 44,000 more women were working in core Stem occupations in 2018 compared with the previous year, pushing the total to more than 900,000 for the first time. Wise has a target of 1m by 2020.
Top tips for apprentices
Research your target sector
Visit workplaces you are interested in and attend company open days. You only get a feel for a workplace once you’ve tried it – many applicants pick a placement thinking they’ll enjoy it and then find they don’t, so it’s a great way of identifying the right career. Read online reviews of what it’s like working for certain employers on glassdoor.co.uk – it carries thousands of reviews of different companies. You can also visit findapprenticeship.service.gov.uk/apprenticeshipsearch
Follow your passion
If you are interested in a certain sector, make sure you follow it up. Check out as many job options as you can to find the right fit for yourself.
Find out employers’ level of support
What qualifications and skills will you gain? Are they transferrable if you want to change disciplines? Find out if the employer is committed to allowing you time off from work to attend college or university and to finish assignments. Will you be able to move around departments? Are apprentices paid a fair wage and will it gradually increase to reflect your growing experience?
Have a strong work ethic
Show you are work-ready by proving you have done your research on the employer and have gained work experience. You’ll start off being set minor tasks and then be encouraged with greater responsibilities when your colleagues start to trust your skills.
Think outside the box
Boost your confidence – and chances – at interviews by taking in a portfolio of your work experience and achievements. It will show your dedication.