The UK must attract highly qualified workers from abroad if the country wants to have a flourishing industry and economy. That is one of four recommendations in a new report released by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee. The conclusions were reached following an inquiry by the committee last year into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills in the UK.
Led by Julia King, a former chief executive of the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World, the inquiry sought to assess whether the UK’s workforce is sufficiently skilled to achieve the government’s ambition of becoming a “science and technology superpower” by 2030.
After hearing from representatives from a range of sectors, including pharmaceuticals and manufacturing, the committee has concluded that there is a widespread shortage of STEM skills, such as mathematics and coding. It also says that the government’s proposed solutions to tackle the shortage are “inadequate and piecemeal”.
To address the skills gap, the committee recommends four policies, the first being to encourage skilled workers from abroad to move to the UK. The report states that overseas talent is a “key” part of the solution and calls on the government to explore new types of visas, revise visa costs and make it easier for small companies to sponsor people from overseas.
The committee’s second recommendation is for a quantitative assessment of exactly which skills are missing in the UK, with routes for people to gain them through apprenticeships and – later in their careers – through modular courses below degree level.
Recruiting and retaining science teachers, particularly in high-demand subjects like physics and computing, is another priority, as is tackling the uncertainty of short-term postdoc work in academia. More should also be done support PhD students to find careers in industry.
To become a science superpower, King says the UK would need a growing STEM culture, excellent teaching, a science-literate population as well as more young people aspiring to STEM jobs. Together with well-funded research in UK universities, this would then fuel a rapid growth in technology companies.
Markers of success for this strategy would include the UK becoming a preferred international research partner as well as a desirable work destination for world-class scientists. Companies would also choose to list on the UK stock market, rather than seeking financial support elsewhere.
Closing the skills gap
“The right skills are critical to the UK’s economic growth,” King told Physics World. “For example, there are many opportunities from the green economy, from retrofitting homes to developing new low-carbon heating technologies to zero-carbon aviation.”
King adds that companies in all areas and of all sizes are reporting skills shortages at technician, graduate and PhD level. “Investment in STEM skills is critical to drive the growth we need to restore the economy and to support critical services such as the NHS,” she says.
The findings from the Lords’ report are detailed in a letter to UK science minister George Freeman published in mid-December. The committee has requested a response from the UK government by 15 February.