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How can work experience help STEM employers gain the skills they need for the future?

(Image credit: Image Credit: Štefan Štefančík / Unsplash)

Dr David Docherty OBE,  Chairman of Placer, and CEO of the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB (opens in new tab)), explains how offering work experience can help employers secure the STEM skills they need.   

In order to effectively compete in the global economy, the UK needs to quickly and effectively improve its science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills base, to support future growth. There has been significant focus on the importance of STEM education in recent times, and an increased discourse around the development of STEM skills. However, a recent report from the National Audit Office Delivering STEM skills for the economy (opens in new tab) reveals a key issue that, despite the sharp spotlight on STEM skills, they are not translating into the workplace.   

Without work-ready graduates, employers will struggle to recruit and retain the vital skills they need for the future of their business. It is vital that STEM skills are developed in a cohesive way to fill the country’s skills gap. One key part of the solution is the delivery of improved access to work experience opportunities, to support STEM undergraduates as they transition from education into the workplace. Quality work experience means that, upon graduation, young people can more quickly and effectively transition into the labour market. 

Enabling employability through experience 

For employers in STEM, recruiting work-ready top graduate talent is of paramount importance to business performance. Through delivering a structured and quality programme of work experience, employers can help to develop fully-rounded STEM graduates. By offering opportunities of varying lengths – be it a day, a week or a month – employers enable students the opportunity to gain essential real-world experience in the work place.   

The experience of working directly with a STEM employer contributes to the knowledge the student will gain during their degree programme. Work experience opportunities, if delivered in the right way, are a great way to ensure that potential future employees are equipped with the transferable skills needed, in conjunction with their education, to start contributing effectively to a company’s performance from day one.   

Skills for the future 

In this current climate, with such a rapid rate of technological change, it is necessary for employers to develop an effective pipeline of STEM talent that’s ready to hit the ground running. The Government’s Industrial Strategy, highlights that the UK will need a constant stream of highly skilled workers to power the economy.   

Those currently in education are going to be working in an environment potentially very different to today, with a different set of skills. A recent report from Deloitte, Power Up: UK skills, (opens in new tab) points out the opportunities for employers to recognise the value of transferable skills in order for workers to stay in employment, and offer their skills to businesses and to the economy. Work experience is a perfect way to develop these transferable skills through combining a student’s academic knowledge with hands-on experience. 

Structured programme of work experience 

Through exposing bright young minds to an organisation’s culture, work experience enables employers to build and nurture a new talent pool for future job opportunities. With regular communication, as and when graduate roles arise, employers can access this pool of talented STEM students with work-ready skills who can thrive in their role from the very start. 

To maximise the benefits of a work experience programme, employers should ensure that students are able to undertake their own unique and distinct project. The stereotype of work experience activities consisting of making tea and photocopying, is of little benefit to either the young people, or the employer. Instead, organisations should seek to create a clear work plan for a work experience student to undertake, with a project of non-time critical work. This will not only allow the student to gain the valuable real-world experience and skills they need but will enable the employer to review how the student applies themselves to specific tasks.   

Sourcing the right talent 

Where can employers find talented STEM students to shape and develop through work experience? Research from the National Centre for Universities and Business (opens in new tab) reveals most organisations cite word-of-mouth as the key channel to access work experience applicants. To widen the pool and attract a greater range of students, employers need a structured process, in which placements are advertised publicly.   

Platforms such as Placer (opens in new tab)– a new work experience app that directly connects businesses with university students – harnesses the power of new matchmaking technology to connect employers with the right students. It enables employers offering quality work experience to tap into the talents of thousands of passionate and highly-adaptive STEM students.    

Work experience forms a key part of the solution to the UK’s STEM skills gap, by enabling the development of the UK’s future skills, in its future employees. For university students, work experience even in the form of day or week opportunities, can help to inspire the next generation of workers to acquire the skills the economy needs.   

Placer is a new social enterprise created through a partnership between not-for-profit the National Centre for Universities and Business (opens in new tab), Jisc (opens in new tab), and Unite Students (opens in new tab). It enables businesses to reach a diverse young talent pool of STEM students, far beyond their word-of-mouth networks with just one, currently free, post. Employers can sign-up to Placer at 

David Docherty, CEO of the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB (opens in new tab)

Image Credit: Štefan Štefančík / Unsplash

David Docherty is Chief Executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business, and Chairman of the Digital Television Group, the industry body for digital television in the UK. He was the first BBC Director of New Media and Deputy Managing Director of BBC Television. In the public sector, he was Chair of Governors of the University of Bedfordshire, and a member of various government advisory panels on new media, technology, and higher education. He serves on the Research Excellence Framework Panel and the Strategically Important and Vulnerable Subjects Committees for the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE) as well as HEFCE’s Enterprise and Skills Committee.