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Promoting STEM in schools and colleges can lead to a more diverse industry

Inspiring a Career in Construction through STEM

We are entering a time of significant technological and economic change and as we progress through the current ‘digital revolution’, STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills are more relevant and important than ever. In this blog, Robbie Blackhurst, Procure Partnerships Director, discusses how STEM programmes in schools and colleges can help to shape a future generation of problem solvers.

STEM skills are key in driving the UK’s private sector forward and are likely to be the foundation of some of the highest growth businesses in the near future. Technologies such as artificial intelligence and smart devices will take over many of the traditional jobs that people previously held and new job roles will arise which require a totally different skill set. Many of the industries and businesses which are fundamental to our economy depend upon skills based in science, technology, engineering and maths and rapidly growing sectors of the UK economy will require an increasing number of skilled workers with qualifications in STEM in order to achieve their objectives.

In January 2017 the Government published its Industrial Strategy Green Paper with the objective to improve economic growth across the country by increasing productivity. The report lists 10 ‘strategic pillars’, the first two of which directly address the promotion of STEM:

1. Investing in science, research and innovation – we must become a more innovative economy and do more to commercialise our world leading science base to drive growth across the UK.

2. Developing skills – we must help people and businesses to thrive by: ensuring everyone has the basic skills needed in a modern economy; building a new system of technical education to benefit the half of young people who do not go to university; boosting STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills, digital skills and numeracy; and by raising skill levels in lagging areas.

STEM helps to create a generation of problem solvers!

So, what is a STEM education? While STEM focuses on science, technology, engineering and maths, rather than teach them as independent subjects, the STEM curriculum integrates them into a cohesive learning model based on real-world applications and problem solving. What separates STEM from the traditional approach to teaching is the blended learning environment and the practical focus which helps students apply scientific methods to everyday life.

Computational thinking and problem solving can be taught to students of any age. By opening children’s eyes to experiences they are not exposed to on a day-to-day basis, they will have a broader mindset and begin to make their own decisions. A common criticism of our current education system is that children are predominantly taught how to remember facts in order to perform well in exams. Whilst good exam results are obviously important, many believe children are not being given the opportunity to develop their critical thinking and problem-solving skills in school. The ability to solve problems as they arise is a key life skill which can help children and young adults get through challenging times and to fully grasp opportunities. Through problem solving activities, a STEM teacher aims to excite students about education while teaching them how to better cope with the world around them. This philosophy is becoming increasingly important as repetitive tasks are replaced by technology and outsourcing. The ability to solve novel and unique problems has become increasingly vital!

Why is STEM important for the construction industry?

As with any industry, construction cannot always rely on tried and tested solutions to problems, there will always come a time when those solutions don’t work or are not effective any longer! Innovation and modernisation are critical to finding more effective and economical ways of working. For the industry to continue to grow and improve, it needs a steady influx of skilled innovators who are capable of pushing the boundaries.

It is important for the construction industry to successfully attract the next generation of STEM-skilled employees. There are many STEM opportunities arising from construction activities in areas such as design, architecture, engineering or scheduling, and these need to be better promoted to young people. Research from the CITB shows that the appeal of a career within the construction industry among young people is low, scoring 4.2 out of 10 among 14 to 19-year-olds. If we do not promote the STEM agenda in schools and demonstrate how this relates to a career in construction, we run the risk of disengaging children, the natural consequence of that being a reduced flow of people qualified in STEM subjects at all levels into our workforce. The Royal Academy of Engineering state that 90% of businesses in engineering, science and hi-tech believe they will be looking to recruit more people with higher skills in the next 3-5 years. Some 52% of engineering companies are currently recruiting engineers at technician level and above, with over half of those experiencing difficulties in recruiting the engineers they need.

Public perceptions of construction need to be fundamentally changed to address skill shortfalls and meet increasing demand for engineers. Encouraging and inspiring the next generation of engineers is more important than ever and the scale of change required to address the forecast shortages is significant and long term. Construction companies are recognising the benefits of STEM-based learning programmes as a successful way to engage students and many are partnering with learning providers in order to offer bespoke opportunities in schools and colleges. These programmes can be developed for students of all ages and can utilise resources such as Lego materials to help children learn the basic engineering principles in a hands-on and engaging way. Activities can also cover genuine problems encountered in the engineering and construction industries, from the calculations required to predict thermal loss from a building, to exploring the maths used in the construction of sewage tunnels. The possibilities are endless.

These STEM education programmes are an excellent way to challenge the poor perceptions of construction and engineering among young people and their influencers, and to highlight the opportunities and career paths that are available. Key influencers of young people often have little understanding of construction and engineering, with only 24% of parents and 44% of teachers acknowledging they know what people working in engineering do.

Promoting STEM in schools and colleges can lead to a more diverse industry

A key challenge for the engineering and construction professions is to encourage participation among under-represented groups. Although the figures are moving in the right direction, it is no secret that females aren’t opting for careers in the construction industry at a rate that has been hoped for. Only 12% of professional roles in construction are currently filled by women, and less than 10% of the UK’s engineering workforce are women. Promoting STEM in schools is an effective way to engage unrepresented groups and to present the industry as a viable option which caters for a range of interests, talents and circumstances. Demonstrating the wide variety of factors which contribute to construction, such as the cutting-edge technology in virtual reality, robotics and exoskeletons, or 3D modelling and printing, we can broaden the appeal to girls and women to pursue STEM skills and opt for a career in construction.

A diverse workforce is incredibly important when identifying solutions to the some of the big challenges of the modern era and it is imperative to get more women and under-represented groups into STEM so that as the world around us changes, it changes to benefit the whole of society.