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Everyday science

The STEM employment paradox, revisited

17 Oct 2014 Margaret Harris

By Margaret Harris

Why, at a time when we hear so much about the UK’s shortage of scientific and technical skills, do unemployment rates among new science graduates remain stubbornly higher than average? This question has been bugging me for some time. Back in 2012, I wrote a blog post about it, suggesting that the answer might be a mismatch between what universities teach and what employers need. But that answer never really satisfied me, so for the graduate careers section in this month’s Physics World, I’ve examined the subject more carefully.

The most surprising thing I found in my research was the weakness of the case for a severe, UK-wide shortage of so-called “STEM” skills (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Some of the “shortage” claims I investigated turned out to be based on small, non-random surveys of employers, while many others simply reused data from one or two influential reports. A few of these key reports were, it’s true, backed up by more substantial research: for example, they used mathematical modelling to predict how many additional STEM workers the UK will need in, say, 2020, based on current data on immigration, retirement ages, vacancy rates and so on. However, the magnitude of their predictions varied quite a lot: I saw estimates as big as 1 million and as small as, er, zero.

That doesn’t mean the shortage is a myth, but as a physicist, I get uneasy whenever I see two (apparently equally plausible) mathematical models produce wildly different results. It suggests problems with the data, the models or the starting assumptions – and maybe all three. If you want to take a look at the data and decide for yourself, you’ll find a fully referenced version of my article here, with links to all the reports I quote. In addition, my former colleague (and occasional Physics World contributor) Andy Extance has put together a nice online widget based on data from the UK Destinations of Leavers of Higher Education (DLHE) survey. The DLHE survey includes information on (among other things) unemployment rates for new graduates, and Extance’s site lets you explore how these figures have changed over the past two decades.

In practical terms, though, the magnitude of the UK’s future “STEM shortage” probably isn’t the biggest concern for STEM graduates who are looking for their first jobs right now. So in the article, I’ve stayed away from the numbers game and focused instead on four reasons why some STEM graduates are struggling to find jobs despite strong demand for their skills. If you can think of other reasons – or you’d like to share your own stories of job hunting – please add your comments below. I’d welcome a debate!

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