The skills shortage paradox

This is the era of STEM. Youngsters are constantly exhorted to forge careers in STEM because, apparently, STEM is where the jobs are. This is the 21st century after all.

The STEM campaign has been broadly ‘successful’ and the number of CAO first preferences for STEM subjects has risen from around 18.7% in 2008 to 23.7%. At the same time there has been a drift away from the arts and humanities; 25.6% in 2008 to 22.0% in 2017. This is seen as a good thing.

But it does strike me that there is something wrong with the whole STEM narrative. According to the HEA, the following were the employment rates in Ireland (nine months post-graduation) for 2015 graduates for the following disciplines:

Science/Maths:                                   42% (7% abroad)

Engineering/Construction:            60% (10% abroad)

ICT:                                                        70% (6% abroad)

These numbers are …disappointing, and not what you would expect to see in a country struggling to cope as a result of skills shortages in STEM. I am amazed these numbers have received so little attention in the media and elsewhere. So what’s going on?

There are a number of possibilities:

  • When we promote the STEM concept we are being too vague and the consequence is that we might be producing too many graduates in areas for which there are, in fact, no skills shortages at all. An over-supply of graduates is likely, at least in some disciplines. For example, the job opportunities for biology graduates are probably quite different from those of physicists or mathematicians. Likewise the opportunities for chemical engineers are probably different from those of civil or electrical engineers.
  • The quality (or the skillset) of our graduates may not be what it should be and employers are recruiting internationally rather than recruiting here in Ireland. Given the number of non-Irish, EU citizens working in our tech industries, this seems a reasonable possibility.
  • The real skills shortage does not occur at entry-level but exists for graduates with 3+ years’ experience.  If this is the case, then perhaps we need to focus less on recruiting young people into STEM and more on the career paths of typical STEM graduates. Are graduates being lost somewhere along the line? Or perhaps we are in a chicken and egg situation where employers want a plentiful supply of experienced scientists and engineers but aren’t willing to make the initial investment by recruiting and training more raw graduates?
  • Graduates are choosing to get the masters degree ‘out of the way’, believing that career advancement will require a masters at some stage; so why not now?

Whatever is going on we need to be a lot more careful in our use of STEM rhetoric. We have an obligation to be straight-up with our students and that means being much more focused in our career advice. We also need employers to be much more precise and focused with their claims of skills shortages. STEM, after all, is not a thing. It’s a whole bunch of things, and quite different things at that.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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