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The STEM employment paradox

By Margaret Harris

I went to the University of Surrey last week for a science careers evening, and as I was chatting to some students afterwards, one of them asked a fascinating question. “We’re always hearing that the UK needs more graduates in STEM fields,” she said, using the ever-present acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “But if that’s true, why are so many of us struggling to find jobs?”

I’ve been asking myself the same question for some time. As Physics World’s careers editor, I receive many upbeat press releases touting the importance of STEM disciplines in building the knowledge economy, pulling the country out of recession and so on. But I have also watched, with impotent sympathy, as some of my scientifically trained friends search in vain for jobs. So what is wrong with this picture?

A few critics – notably the Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins – have suggested that the shortage of STEM skills is a big fat lie, promulgated by academics who need students to justify their departmental budgets and abetted by government ministers who wouldn’t know a STEM skill if it came up and bit them. It is also rumoured that firms are exaggerating skills shortages because in some countries it’s easier to hire immigrants in “shortage” areas.

However, I have heard too many industry scientists bemoan the lack of qualified job applicants to put much faith in either of these explanations. Instead, I have come to believe that the most important factor behind STEM graduate unemployment is actually the mismatch between the skills a science degree teaches and the skills employers need.

“Aha!” I hear some of you say. “She’s going to mention ‘soft skills’ – all those things like team working and communication that don’t get taught at university!” And it’s true that these are important. But many universities are getting better at teaching such skills, and it is also reasonably easy for clued-up students to acquire them on their own – by running a university club, for example.

The real mismatch is in technical skills. Familiarity with industry-specific hardware and software. Qualifications in ultra-narrow specialities. In-depth knowledge of regulations. Unusual combinations of skills. All of these qualities are genuinely in very short supply, and a company looking to hire graduates who can – for example – troubleshoot 10-year-old computer systems, programme in obscure machine languages and converse fluently in German…well, good luck with that.

In better times, that company might have taken on graduates who ticked perhaps one of those boxes, paid them modest salaries and provided training to fill in the gaps. But the market is tough right now, and many firms cannot afford to invest in new employees who might not work out. They also cannot afford to pay top dollar to attract someone who already has all the skills and experience they need. The result: a “skills shortage” in STEM – and a lot of unemployed graduates.

Fortunately, it is not all gloomy news for physics graduates at the moment. In particular, recruitment at top UK firms seems to be picking up, and there are plenty of things that individuals can do to make their applications stand out. For more information, keep an eye out for Physics World’s next graduate recruitment special, which will appear here and as a PDF download from in early March.

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