The much-discussed STEM skills gap is more of a mismatch than a gap, according to a report released by the National Audit Office (NAO). The study also identifies a potential shortfall of 700,000 STEM technicians, despite nearly £1 billion spent on government initiatives since 2007, leading to calls for initiatives to be better targeted and prioritised.

The government spending watchdog released its report on Delivering STEM Skills for the Economy last week, concluding that efforts to solve the skills crisis have not been well prioritised and calling for a better targeted approach. The reports’ authors say that a lack of precise understanding of the problem means that the government’s efforts do not demonstrate value for money. This finding has been echoed by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who told the World Economic Forum in Davos that re-skilling programmes have proved “one of the greatest wastes of money”, because they have failed to match the needs of industry.

The broadness of the term STEM seems to be contributing to the problem, as attempts to address the shortage cover the whole of science, technology, engineering and maths. Treating all STEM subjects as equal has meant that many of those counted as having successfully been encouraged to enter STEM fields do so in ways that do not help employers plug their gaps. For example, the NAO report found that while full-time under-graduate enrolment for STEM subject degree courses rose by nearly 7% between 2011 and 2015, most of the growth was in biological sciences, with few jobs available, while engineering and computer science, fields that are crying out for candidates, saw weaker growth. Perhaps this contributes to the fact that just 24% of the 75 thousand-odd STEM graduates were employed in a STEM field six months later.

Two factors stand out as significant to the tech sector’s shortfall, secondary education and the gender gap. Women are under-represented across STEM, making up just 38% of undergraduate enrolments for STEM subjects, despite being the majority of undergraduates overall. The problem is worse with younger students and for computing, in 2016/17 girls accounted for just 9.4% of A Level candidates in computing subjects, and 8% of STEM-based apprentices, despite female learners being in the majority overall. It will be nearly impossible for the tech sector to address its skills crisis if half of the population is so massively under-represented.

The poor state of secondary school computer science teaching was also raised by Nadella in Davos. “The fact that most curricula in schools still don’t recognise computer science like they do maths or physics is just crazy,” he told the gathering, adding “we need middle school teachers of computer science of the highest quality”. On this front at least the government has taken some action, with Philip Hammond promising funding in his last Budget to train 8,000 additional computer science teachers. The NAO’s head, Amyas Morse sounds a note of caution however: “Some initiatives are getting positive results but there is an urgent need for the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy to coordinate plans and set out what they are trying to achieve.” As skills shortages in the tech sector continue to grow, we certainly need to see positive, effective action.

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