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Returning to STEM
Returning to STEM

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1 Employment trends in STEM

When you are returning from a career break, things that have changed may seem confusing. This change, however, is driven by science and technology, which create demand for new skills from a growing number of employers. With a background in STEM you are well placed to take advantage of the changes in the workplace. According to the UK government’s Working Future 2012-2022 Evidence Report (Wilson et al, 2014), between 2012 and 2015, the total number of people employed in core STEM occupations in the UK has grown by 13 per cent to 2.9 million; over the same period the number of women employed in core STEM occupations has risen by 40 per cent. So where might you be working when you return to STEM? In this section you will be looking at some key government and business reports about some expected trends in STEM employment.

Activity 1 Trends in STEM

Timing: Allow approximately 30 minutes

Read through the following three passages, which give an overview of technology, engineering and science trends, and make a note of anything that surprises you or makes you think about new directions you might want to pursue.


Technology has fundamentally changed the workplace and what was once a separate function has now been consolidated into core business. The most precious commodity is now data – organisations collect data in increasing quantities from their customers and other stakeholders. Looking forwards, analysis and application of this ‘big data’ will increasingly present new employment opportunities.

This analysis requires mathematicians, statisticians and coders to interrogate the data. New methods will be developed to work with these data sets. Work is likely to be carried out within multifunctional innovation teams who will be set targets of achieving specific business outcomes through the adoption of technology and the application of big data. This kind of work is not confined to the IT industry. Banks and financial services providers are now among the biggest spenders on technology as they try to gain competitive advantage. For example, the largest division within Goldman Sachs is the 9000 strong technology group (McLannahan and Noonan, 2015).

Specific IT skills are already in short supply and demand is forecast to continue outstripping supply over at least the next five years (Wilson et al, 2014). Software developers, system analysts, business analysts, web designers and specialist managers are the roles in greatest demand.

People with STEM skills have been trained to deal with data, understand data, analyse data and are the favoured choice for business-focused roles by many types of data-driven employers. A recent report from the CBI states that ‘STEM qualified graduates have a real advantage in the jobs market with four out of 10 employers preferring STEM graduates over other types of graduates’ (CBI/Pearson, 2015, p. 4).

Another big growth area in IT is security. Increasingly, databases are being criminally hacked for commercial gain and the protection of personal and proprietary data is a huge growth area for those with highly-specialist IT skills.

In the ICT professional category, the total number of people employed has grown by 20 per cent to one million; although still in a minority, the actual number of women working in the sector has grown by 40 per cent in that time (WISE, 2015).


Engineering is one of the biggest contributors to the UK economy. It is estimated that UK engineering businesses contributed £456bn to UK Gross Domestic Product – 27 per cent of the total (Kumar et al, 2016). Modern engineering encompasses a broad spectrum of technologies and industries – from biosciences to renewables, from electronics to space in addition to the more familiar transport and construction industries.

Many areas of engineering were affected by the financial crash of 2007–08 and the reduction in demand resulting from the austerity measures that were subsequently instituted globally and nationally. Even so, the single biggest issue occupying the overall industry for some time has been the imbalance in the supply and demand of engineering skills. As the industry looks forward to an era of substantially increased investment in engineering output, it is also facing a situation where there aren’t enough people who have completed relevant apprenticeships and or who have a higher education qualification.

A trend we have seen in recent years is the rapid increase in the number of women entering the engineering sector. In the past three years, the total number of people employed in professional engineering occupations has grown by 14 per cent to 0.5 million; in the same time, the number of women engineers employed has tripled (WISE, 2015).


In this next passage, the opportunities and changes in the science sector are outlined by Cogent Skills (2015):

Cogent Skills works across the science sector, representing Life Sciences (pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, medical technology and consumer healthcare), the Industrial Sciences (chemicals, downstream, industrial bio-technology, polymers, advanced materials and formulations) and Nuclear. The science-based sector comprises some of the UK’s most strategically important, value-adding and innovative employers in the UK. It provides for our energy and our healthcare needs as well as the raw materials for supply chains across every single area of industry. Within this highly skills-intensive footprint there are around 585,000 employees contributing in excess of £25bn in Gross Value Added (GVA) to the UK economy. The sector’s productivity, at around £66,000 GVA per employee, represents a high-value contribution, particularly when benchmarked against the UK employee average of around £23,000.

These industries are developing technologies that improve lives and underpin the sustainability of the UK. All have molecular transformation at their core and are dependent on a continued flow of STEM skills.

The industries have an ageing workforce: in the process manufacturing sector just under 40 per cent of the existing workforce is over 45 years old, which requires a high replacement demand over the next five to ten years. This is compounded by cross-industry shortages of skilled technicians and the fact that the industry is reliant on STEM skills-sets, which have been in decline in recent years.

The manufacturing processes of these science-based industries are also both safety critical, and carbon/energy intensive and hence are heavily regulated from both a safety and environmental perspective.

Sector drivers

Structural and technological developments have changed the way we do business. In the science industries, particularly life sciences, there has been a move from single corporate entities to collaborative ventures with smaller companies and the increased outsourcing of research and development to a growing supply chain.

There is now a premium on the mobility and transportability of skills, as well as on innovation. Evidence for this comes from employers. There is disquiet over the quality of recruits (at all levels), their lack of commercial work experience, the time it takes to make them work-ready, the lack of vocational pathways and equivalencies, the ability of employers to influence course content and provider complacency.

This is supported by employer surveys which consistently show that over a quarter of our sector vacancies remain hard to fill (UKCES Employer Skills Survey). This is well above the national average and includes some of the sector’s key strategic sectors (for example in medical technology: 54 per cent of vacancies are hard to fill).

The Science Industry Partnership has an ambition to meet this challenge. This is because life sciences technologies and skills have the same scientific core as the wider biological and chemically based industrial sciences. This includes biotechnology, medical technology, consumer healthcare, chemicals and pharmaceuticals. More importantly, developments in life science research and applications have accelerated since the decoding of the human genome. It is widely recognised that the spread of these new fundamental principles and techniques into the economy has hardly begun.

This sector breakdown is as follows:

SectorNumber of Employees
Life Sciences175,761
Grand Total584,831
(Cogent Skills, 2015)

Activity 2 Evaluating the statistics

Timing: Allow approximately 5 minutes

The Department for Innovation and Skills (2015) Growth Dashboard [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] shows the trends in a number of STEM occupational categories. It says that ‘in 2013, 32 per cent of vacancies were classified as skills shortage vacancies; an increase from 2011 levels’ (p. 32).

On page 29 of the dashboard there is a breakdown of the sectors shown in Figure 1.

UK industrial strategy sectors (UKCES, 2015)
Figure 1 UK industrial strategy sectors (UKCES, 2015)

Go to page 29 of the dashboard and select the sector or sectors most related to the area of STEM you have previously worked in. Make a note of the amount or percentage of UK GVA which the sector represents and the percentage or number of UK jobs it has. It is useful to take a look at pages. 29–44 of this government report and make notes on what you think are the most relevant trends in the area of STEM you are interested in.


Specific employment and GVA facts are:

  • Aerospace – 7.6 per cent of manufacturing GVA (4.6 per cent in 2000) and 4.3 per cent of manufacturing employment (2.9 per cent in 2000).
  • The UK Agri-cultural Technologies sector – contributes £10.4bn to GVA and employs 475,000 people.
  • Automotive – 0.7 per cent of UK GVA and 5.9 per cent of UK manufacturing jobs.
  • Construction – 6 per cent of UK GVA and 6 per cent of UK employment.
  • Information Economy – the chart shows that in 2013 there were 900,000 jobs in the sector in 2013 and £68bn GVA.
  • International Education – the education sector exported £18.1bn in 2012, with the majority of this (65 per cent) coming from higher education. The number of European Union Higher Education students in the UK has risen by 13,140 between 2007/08 and 2012/13. Over the same period the number of non-EU students has risen by 70,330.
  • Life Sciences – employs 176,000 people, with a £51bn turnover.
  • Nuclear – sales in the nuclear sector were £3.96bn in 2011/12. There were just under 36,000 jobs in the nuclear sector in 2011/12.
  • Off-shore wind – the sector could deliver up to £7bn GVA (excluding exports) and support over 30,000 full time equivalent UK jobs.
  • Oil and gas – the UK oil and gas industry GVA is £24.0bn and directly employs over 25,000 people. Once the supply chain is included, the industry supports about 280,000 jobs.
  • Professional and Business Services (PBS) – the chart shows that in 2013 there were four million jobs in the sector and £160bn GVA.

You have now looked at an overview of the trends in STEM and begun to consider how this is relevant to you. In the next section you will look at a specific area where there is employment; demand either through a skills gap or a growth in the sector.