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CBI demands action on growing UK skills vacuum

12 March 2014

The CBI is calling for action to make careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) more attractive and easier to access.

CBI chief policy director, Katja Hall
CBI chief policy director, Katja Hall

The UK’s leading business organisation is urging the government to consider financing a cut in tuition fees for some STEM courses, developing new training routes for existing workers, and creating a one-year crossover qualification.

In a new report, Engineering our Future, the CBI argues that front-running British sectors of the future, from the advanced manufacturing and creative industries to the green economy, are facing a skills crunch in key industrial strategy sectors – especially for skilled technicians. To help solve this shortage the CBI is calling for:

- A possible reduction of fees on some STEM courses to attract more students and the development of one-year crossover courses at 18 for young people to switch back to STEM in preparation for a related degree – an approach used by the legal profession after graduation
- New collaborative training solutions to progress apprenticeships and retraining to meet the pressing need for skilled technicians
- Use of UK Commission for Employment and Skills funding in key sectors to help firms retrain older workers in STEM shortage areas.

CBI chief policy director, Katja Hall (pictured) said that growth and jobs in the future will depend on the UK having a workforce that can exploit new technologies and discoveries. "The growing skills vacuum is threatening the recovery, as demand from firms is outstripping supply," she says. “Highly-skilled workers are essential for our growth sectors and it will be those young people with science and maths who will go on to become the engineers and new tech entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

“The government must explore if it’s possible to reduce the costs of some of these courses and create a one-year crossover qualification at 18 for those who turned away from science and maths after GCSEs, but now want to take a related degree.

“But it is increasingly clear that the really problematic shortages are at skilled technician level. We do have to play a long game on skills, creating more apprenticeships, but we also need policies for the short-term, including retraining existing workers with in-demand skills in key sectors.”

Engineering our Future argues that unless the true value of STEM-related qualifications and jobs are better showcased and more routes to such careers are created, especially for women, businesses will continue to struggle in their recruitment, threatening the long-term health of the economy. A CBI/Pearson survey shows that last year 42 percent of firms faced difficulties recruiting individuals with STEM skills and knowledge.

The CBI is also calling for Davies-style targets for women participating in STEM courses from 6th form upwards. It also highlights research showing that STEM-based occupations are relatively well-paid at all skill levels across the country in comparison to non-STEM positions.

“The Davies Review has had an impact in the boardroom, now we need a similar focus on the classroom," adds Ms Hall. "There is a shameful gender gap in science and technology so we need to transform society’s ideas of the choices women have in their careers. Employees with the right skills to work in areas like medicine, engineering and computer science also tend to have higher earnings on average than those who don’t.”

Other CBI recommendations include:
- Focus on developing the capacity of schools to make the three sciences available as a choice for every young person
- The government adopting a more robust approach to funding for STEM in universities – making clear both the reason for and the scale of the subsidy they deliver as a tool to communicate the subjects’ importance
- Making sure the Richard reforms on apprenticeships are introduced and work for all sizes of business, meaning more simplicity for the smallest firms
- Supporting the development of more University Technical Colleges and Studio Schools
- Businesses and the government working together to align and expand STEM programmes in schools and share best practice
- Relaxing equivalent or lower qualification rules around part-time STEM students should be expanded to enable more older workers to retrain at university level.

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