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STEM Day 2019: It’s time these skills went mainstream

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Trueffelpix)

Despite technological advancements happening almost daily, there is still a distinct lack of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) skills available in the employee market. The small pool of talent is making it very difficult for businesses to hire candidates with the right skills and knowledge needed for their business. 

This STEM Day, technology executives share the challenges they have faced, their thoughts, and future predictions with regard to STEM skills. 

STEM is vital across all industries

“Technology is reshaping every aspect of our lives – from online shopping to our privacy and security, autonomous cars to health and genomics – and that's just to name a few,” says Krishna Subramanian, COO at Komprise. “In light of this, STEM education is no longer just for students who want to pursue an engineering career, as there are so many more industries that need tech skills. It is vital in nearly every career from law and public policy, to medicine, to engineering, and the arts.”

April Taylor, Vice President at ConnectWise Manage, agrees:

“Every industry is tied to technology, so it’s great that the right education is available, especially to younger aged kids because now they’re getting more exposure early on to potential careers within the tech sector. Elementary schools now have laptops and assignments that include building websites at a young age. There are even toys for kids now that introduce them to the concept of coding. Technology is more pervasive and the exposure to coding and product development is there for a lot of kids, so it’s a matter of getting them excited about taking this recreational or academic assignment and turning it into a career. Organisations should consider this when looking at the incoming workforce, especially since IT is always changing and the industry requires constant education to stay ahead of the curve."

STEM and the gender gap

“The gender gap definitely still exists in a variety of ways, many of which are widely publicised,” comments Yumi Nishiyama, Director of Global Services at Exabeam. “For example, statistics say only 20% of individuals in tech are women, and only 11% percent of individuals in cybersecurity are women. We need more women in upper leadership, and the unequal wage issue is still a reality. I’d like to encourage women to take a proactive stance in not only building the solutions, but being a part of the solution.

“We need to continue encouraging females in STEM education and build more support structures for women throughout their careers. Tech and cybersecurity can have a bad rap for being male-dominated, which can be a deterrent for women looking for diverse environments. When I first started in this industry, I was often the only female among male colleagues and felt extremely outnumbered at the big conferences. Now, years later, the community of women has gotten stronger and incredibly welcoming and embracing. It’s been slow, but it’s changing, so I encourage women to reach out, support each other, and not to feel discouraged. My biggest piece of advice for women of all ages would be: ‘do not be afraid to use your voice.’ As women, we bring different ideas and strengths. Be confident in what you’re good at, pursue what you’re passionate about, and let that be the focal point, not the stereotypes.”

High time we close the skills gap

The gender gap isn’t the only one that needs closing, as Alan Conboy, office of the CTO at Scale Computing, explains:

“Technology is constantly evolving and as such we need to remember that in order to continue to develop and innovate, we require fresh ideas and new skills. This is why days, like STEM day, are important, because globally we are suffering from a digital skills shortage in areas including AI, hybrid, edge, cloud-based development and management. Both educators and industry leaders need to support and encourage more children and young adults into developing their STEM skills and show the students of today that they could be the CTOs of tomorrow.”  

Josh Flinn, Director of Product Strategy & Innovation at Cybera, continues:

“Change and progress in the technology industry is constant. The challenge is there is a huge talent shortage - there simply aren’t enough individuals with the right digital skills. In fact, in the UK alone there are an estimated 600,000 technology vacancies, with 52% business claiming it is hard to find the talent they need to fill the roles. Days like STEM/STEAM day serve as an important reminder to providing accessible resources and opportunities to encourage students develop their STEM skillsets. Together with the support of business these initiatives will help close the skill-shortage gap.”

From cradle to STEM

The best way to advance the industries that rely on STEM knowledge in the future is to encourage children – both boys and girls – now to take an interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics at a young age. Michelle Fitzgerald, Director, Demand Gen & Events at Plutora, says,

“Encouraging girls in particular to study STEM subjects will help to bring a fresh perspective to an industry such as technology, which is traditionally very male-dominant. Diversifying the STEM workforce will ensure that technology will continue to revolutionise the world around us and bring positive impact to a broader range of industries."

“STEM subjects are so important, more than just in the business sense. They are used in everyday life and help with the further development of things we use day to day,” explains Ketna Makwana, HR Manager at Node4. “However, there is definitely a skills gap within the technology sector, and it’s growing rapidly. This is why it’s important that businesses get involved and encourage students to study STEM subjects. Node4 works with colleges and schools to encourage them to understand what it is like to work in technology and the ways in which they can add value. We arrange college talks and also reach out to local schools to support work experience. Yes, there’s a skills gap that needs addressing, and to help resolve this, it’s important that businesses look for individuals that are interested in STEM and help them to grow and develop their skills.”

Agata Nowakowska, Area Vice President at Skillsoft, discusses her concern over the future of STEM: 

"It was great to see over exam results season, so many students taking STEM subjects. The key question remains though – is this enough? The digital skills gap in industry is fast expanding and already at a level that can't be filled quickly enough. Encouraging more students to take these exams isn’t enough. We need to focus on keeping them there – encouraging more students to pursue these subjects at degree-level and beyond.

“It’s much more than exam numbers. We need to educate people to challenge their unconscious biases and promote STEM as a subject for everyone. Whilst it is of course disappointing to see the gender gap continue in these subjects, what is more concerning is that these results are reflective of the lack of female role models in technology and STEM as a whole. Young girls have claimed in the past that they are put off of subjects such as computing because they see them as ‘too difficult’, but a large number of young women have also admitted to regretting not pursing STEM subjects for longer. There is an opportunity here for a paradigm shift that we are simply not taking. That's why the onus is on parents, teachers and business leaders to show that there is a place for girls in STEM – they need role models and sponsors to encourage them to take the path. There are so many programmes aimed at getting girls interested in these areas, but we need to go further to challenge and eradicate the old fashioned views that are clearly still very much ingrained in the public consciousness."

“Education, particularly in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), is the key to addressing many of society’s greatest challenges,” Connie Stack, Chief Strategy Officer at Digital Guardian, points out. “Recent research from Microsoft and KRC Research found that confidence in STEM wanes as children get older - especially in girls - but interest can be recovered when subjects are related to real-world people and problems. At Digital Guardian we’re trying to do just that by sponsoring the United Way STEM program, including hosting girls and boys for a cyber security training camp every summer.”

Svenja de Vos, CTO at Leaseweb, also addresses the problem: 

“Even with the increased emphasis on teaching STEM subjects in schools and at universities, when it comes to filling technology roles most organisations are still struggling to find the right people with the right expertise. A key underlying reason for this seems to be the widening gap between what’s being taught in the classroom and what’s needed in the real world – technology today moves so rapidly it’s hard to keep up.

“But though the adaptation of technology aspects may be not be happening fast enough, it’s still vital to have a solid technology foundation such as a computer science or software degree. Keeping up with the tech revolution, however, means that STEM learning shouldn’t stop there. So while we as a business strive to ensure that our employees stay as up to speed as possible through group training on specific tools or languages key to both the business and skills development, we strongly encourage students, graduates and technological evangelists wanting to enter the industry to proactively seek out opportunities to learn advanced digital skills. Continually developing yourself will make you stand out to prospective employers.”

The value of continued learning

Joseph Feiman, Chief Strategy Officer at WhiteHat Security, looks into a solution to the problem. "Growing a workforce of individuals who are more STEM-qualified involves introducing them to options and training opportunities,” he says. “People need to see firsthand when others have successfully gone down this path, so they can identify that it’s a realistic option for them. From an internal communications point of view, few things are more powerful than enthusiastic colleagues showing the way.

“Whether this requires organisations to teach new or additional skills, both will be important strategies to close the employment gap. The requirements will differ for each individual, but good assessment will allow employers to identify specific needs and tailor training to bring people to the required standards. Larger companies can place this in the hands of their learning and development teams. Smaller businesses can consider outsourcing the process or allocating time from experienced staff to mentor people as they add to their skillsets.

“The key to building a strong STEM skill base lies in instilling love and enthusiasm from an early age. While schools are striving to ensure that their STEM curriculums are more robust, they can and should also leverage learning opportunities outside of the classroom to enhance learning, such as after-school clubs or programs, camps or tutoring.

“One nonprofit organisation making huge strides in this regard is Girls Who Code, which is working to close the gender employment difference in technology. It offers a pathway for girls who have completed courses to transition from middle or high school into the technology workforce, as well as a supportive community to help students and alumni persevere and achieve success.

“Businesses interested in supporting STEM education should research local options to work with educators. These include making financial donations or encouraging colleagues to volunteer to help promote STEM careers among young people. The possibilities will vary depending on location, so reaching out to regional experts is key."

Evolving alongside the tech

Sascha Giese, Head Geek at SolarWinds, looks into the importance of keeping up with the ever-changing digital landscape:

“Taking up STEM subjects when you’re young is a great way to get into a thriving industry, but the learning doesn’t stop there! In the public sector, technology professionals need to keep up with training to not only ensure they’re up to date on the technologies that can benefit their sector, but also for their own career development. Rather than seeing this training as time wasted away from their job, according to the SolarWinds IT Trends Report 2019, public sector tech pros enjoy training in the workplace, with 49% finding it informative, 44% saying it’s engaging and interactive, and 20% reporting it’s not long enough.

“For teams to tailor the training they receive to make it as valuable as possible, they should evaluate their current environments; for example, asking themselves which leading technologies from last year have made their way into today’s IT environment. Starting with the technologies they need now, and then progressing to the technologies of the future, is the surest way for tech pros to grow within the STEM community and develop skills to drive the industry forward.”

What's the future?

According to Rich Pugh, Chief Data Scientist & Co-founder at Mango Solutions, the future of data and what we do with is set to change even more:

"In the last five years, demand for specialist skills like data science and data engineering has increased significantly, mainly due to the growth in adoption by organisations of data-driven strategies to derive business value. Despite the demand for these skills, however, educators are still only offering a more traditional mix of academic subjects at primary and secondary education level.

“It’s increasingly important that we educate young people beyond just ‘performing’ data science and focus more on the high-level concepts, mechanics and language of data science that will prepare young people for a workforce that is increasingly based on data-driven approaches and operating models. Data is absolutely the currency of future business, so an understanding of its possibilities - as well as potential dangers – is a crucial element of learning."