Engineering Skills Shortage – Why our education system needs to up the ante on STEM

Stem and Equality

About a year ago my daughter took part in a public speaking competition with her school – the topic of her speech was “Women’s Inequality is the greatest challenge of our time”. She read it to me several times as she discussed and refined each point she was making, each time she looked to expand on the section where she discussed inequality in education. This struck me. Although her own interests lie elsewhere, she was passionate about the lack of choice she had that may enable her own career choices in the future. This is an extract from her speech:

“Like me, many of you here today have been discriminated against in Ireland’s education system. I attend an all-girls school where the subject choices that are on offer to me are limited and I for one do not have the opportunity to choose subjects such as metalwork and tech graphics to name but a few.

Instead I have the option of doing home economics. I am taught how to look after a house and family but not taught something that may give me an equal career path later in life, such as engineering”

 

It made me think again. Had I let her down by limiting her choices? What can I do? I then realised my own hands were tied, the local secondary schools in the area do not offer the subject choices that would facilitate equal career opportunities. Was this a result of the single gender secondary school system that prevails in many towns and cities in Ireland? I discussed this with a senior colleague, one of Ireland’s leading woman engineers. She went to a mixed school but recanted the battle that she and her parents had with teachers and the school to allow her take technical subjects rather than the traditional Home Economics option taken by “all girls”. Don’t get me wrong, the skills and knowledge developed in Home Economics are also valuable; it’s about choice.

I realised the problem was greater than I had imagined and does not just apply to girls. In many schools the subject options have widened to include a greater choice of languages, business studies, economics, science and more but it is very rare for girl’s schools to offer technical subjects and some girls schools still have Home Economics as a mandatory subject, at least in first year. In boys and mixed schools, where technical graphics and woodwork may be options, we find that computer science, software development and basic engineering still remain rare as subject options.

 

Embracing Change

Engineering & Technology is one of the top four course areas of interest for secondary students looking to start a Level 8 degree programme at third-level in 2015. With an increase of 8.5% to over 35,000, it now accounts for over 10% of all applications. Yet it is the only subject area in the Top 4 where the subject does not form part of core teaching at second-level. Why are we not responding to the clear demand of the next generation by nurturing their interest and knowledge in engineering and technology? Why does our education system seem incapable of change in response to society’s needs?

An article written by Brian MacCraith appeared in the Irish Times on 29th March referred to a recent World Economic Forum Report which highlighted the growing gap between student/graduate skills and employer skills needs and the imperative to develop more “T-Shaped” graduates – young professionals with a depth of learning, understanding and specialisms (the vertical stroke of the T) with natural abilities and attitudes that solve problems, innovate, build relationships and teams (the horizontal stroke in the T). The article highlighted the challenge Ireland faces:

Central to Ireland’s ability to attract foreign direct investment and to develop our indigenous economy are the availability of appropriate talent and a strong capacity for innovation. To ensure Ireland remains competitive and continues to advance in both spheres, it is imperative that our education system reacts to the clearly articulated concerns of employers and that we focus on developing creative and adaptable graduates. There is a clear need to pursue educational approaches that foster and develop T-shaped characteristics that are in high demand today and in the future workforce. The best way of developing desirable attributes in students is to integrate them into the curriculum from the earliest stages.

 

I look at the landscape of career opportunity and Ireland’s potential to sustain its position as a competitive open economy on an increasingly global stage. Currently Ireland is the leading exporter of computer and information services in the world, we are rapidly becoming Europe’s medtech hub, Ireland is one of the top four biopharmaceutical clusters in the world, not just leading the way in the production of global brands such as Botox, Viagra and Panadol but increasingly contributing to R&D and manufacturing innovation in the industry. Yet we are struggling to access skills to meet industry demands and this is impairing industry productivity and competitiveness.

And this is not just an Irish challenge. LinkedIn’s Economic Graph, which digitally maps the global economy and provides insights into global labour markets, highlighted that STEM dominates global workforce demand with STEM skills making up the majority of The 25 Hottest Skills of 2015. Where there is a challenge there is an opportunity.

At Team Horizon we are trying to influence the system and give the next generation the opportunity to express their creativity, innovation and problem solving through our Engineers’ Den competition, school visits in conjunction with Engineers’ Ireland’s STEPS programme, participation in Science Week and through the facilitation of work experience for senior cycle secondary students. We must try and do more but the greater onus is on our government and all those that are involved in the education system to think outside the box and create a new tomorrow where creativity, innovation and problem solving in a practical, inclusive environment which supports equal opportunity is the foundation of our education system.

Brian MacCraith in the Irish Times, finished his article by stating 

In a rapidly changing and challenging world, Ireland needs graduates that are innovative, collaborative and adaptable. Our education system needs to demonstrate, and be allowed demonstrate, the same adaptability that is expected of our graduates. Some may argue that such approaches are overly utilitarian. I believe we have a responsibility to our students and society to develop graduates who can find fulfilment in employment and contribute significantly to that society.

 I couldn’t have put it better.