The STEM Skills Shortage & What It Means for the UK Chemical Industry

Jessica Clifton

by Jessica Clifton

1st August 2019

Reports have been circulating for well over a decade that the UK has a STEM skills shortage. Indeed, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) skills are critical to the country’s productivity and economy, making this shortage a critical problem to solve especially in an era of fast-paced technological change. 

But what’s the cause of this shortage? Why are the UK and many countries around the world experiencing this problem?

Why There’s a STEM Skills Shortage

There's a shortage of girls studying STEM-related subjects

There are several reasons why science and technology-based industries are experiencing a skills gap: 

  • Low-quality careers advice at school which perpetuates the STEM stereotype means that fewer pupils, especially girls, are choosing to pursue STEM subjects 
  • How schools are funded decreases the chance of pupils attending STEM-focused learning providers such as institutes of technology
  • Businesses are losing experienced staff, either due to early retirement caused by a difficult economic climate or due to the fact that more experienced staff are more expensive than the younger workforce
  • Government departments lack people with industrial and commercial experience in their STEM working groups
  • Employees currently in high-level STEM positions are less likely to receive training than their equivalents in other roles 

The Impact of the Gap in STEM Skills

STEM Learning released a major piece of research on the subject of the STEM skills shortage. This research was conducted amongst 400 HR directors and decision-makers in businesses that directly rely on a workforce with STEM skills. 

Bridging the STEM skills gap

The research found a startling impact on UK businesses from the gap in STEM skills:

  • The UK has a shortfall of around 173,000 skilled STEM workers, or 10 vacant roles per business
  • 89% of companies had difficulty hiring STEM-skilled staff within the previous 12 months
  • The skills gap is costing the STEM sector £1.5 billion in recruitment processes, temporary staffing to cover unfilled vacancies, increased salaries, and additional training
  • New STEM roles are expected to double in the next 10 years, leading to an increased impact on the economy
  • Almost 50% of STEM-related businesses recruit suitable candidates from outside the UK, and 70% recruit candidates who don’t have a STEM background or they don’t recruit at all
  • There is the possibility that other countries could leave the UK behind in terms of technological advancement and R&D

What The STEM Skills Shortage Means for the Chemical Industry

The impact of the STEM skills gap is clearly very pertinent to the UK’s chemical industry. Chemical manufacturers and suppliers require a workforce with varying levels of STEM skills not just to operate, but to innovate. 

A government report on high-level STEM skills shows that the number of STEM graduates in a company strongly correlates with innovation. Approximately 45% of graduates working in innovative manufacturing companies hold a STEM-related degree, as opposed to approximately 30% of graduates in non-innovative companies.

But employees with the right skills are difficult to find. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) says that 43% of STEM vacancies are hard to fill because only a few applicants have the right skills. The UK average is 24%. 

We have had experience of this at ReAgent when we’ve been recruiting into STEM-related positions. Our Managing Director, Simon Tasker, says,

“We’ve had difficulties in recruiting the right people, for example into chemical blending positions because they either don’t have the right educational level – we would require a chemistry ‘A’ Level or equivalent for this role – or they don’t have adequate laboratory experience.”

Additionally, international benchmarking suggests that the UK’s science and innovation industries are hindered by this shortage of STEM skills. This means that the chemical manufacturing sector might find it more difficult to innovate in response to global competition. 

How We Can Bridge The STEM Skills Gap

The government, businesses, and education providers need to act to ensure that the UK can bridge the STEM skills gap before it’s too late. A recent report by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry report calls for us to work together to “develop new ways to create a sustainable skills pipeline and an innovation-ready workforce.”

We must encourage young people to choose STEM subjects

We need to:

These solutions will help the chemical industry, the UK’s largest manufacturing sector exporter, to maintain its reliance on a STEM-skilled workforce in order to operate and innovate.

Find out more about careers in chemistry in our chemistry careers resources hub.


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