Strategies for closing the STEM skills gap

This is the second instalment of a two-part blog series on the widening skills gap, which turns the spotlight on UK STEM. View part one, ‘Are you losing out on extraordinary talent? Consider a skills-based approach to recruitment and redeployment?’ here.

The UK economy has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons over recent weeks, and unsurprisingly, employer confidence is cooling. Even before this, the number of job vacancies in the UK fell by 3.6% in July to September 2022 – the third consecutive quarterly fall. But with 1,246,000 vacancies still available, this number was still 450,000 (56.6%) higher than before the pandemic, and nearly 117,000 (10.3%) above the level of a year ago.[1]

Some sectors are feeling the talent squeeze more than others. According to the BBC, there were more than two million UK job vacancies in tech last year, more than any other labour area. [2] And a report by Tech Nation, published in June this year, says tech roles now make up 14% of all job opportunities in the UK, up from 11% in 2019.[3]

As a specialist recruitment and workforce solutions provider, we have first-hand experience of the talent shortages affecting our clients across the UK, and we’re working with them to find new ways to plug the skills gap, especially in high-value, vital STEM occupations.

Technology talent shortages

Lorien, our technology and digital specialist brand, has a large portfolio of clients in financial services – a sector that has been going through a digital transformation. This transformation accelerated during the pandemic as the workforce became remote, and customers moved to digital and cashless payments and mobile banking.[4]

Managing Director David Gettins explained that the demand for tech people has increased as everyone from retail to financial services companies look to improve the customer experience. He said: “It’s no longer just IT companies recruiting tech people: everyone is. And it’s not just the big players either; even the smallest organisation is now going digital. Companies need those skills to create new digital products, reduce operating costs and prevent cybercrime.”

It’s an additional pressure on an already competitive market in which the talent pool is smaller too. With our homegrown workforce lacking the technical skills and experience required, and the UK no longer recruiting talent from APAC and Eastern Europe, the need is being met, at least in part, by workers from India and Pakistan.

Life sciences and engineering

And it’s not just technology experiencing the skills squeeze – other areas of STEM are finding recruitment and retention of quality talent equally challenging. According to the UK Commission for Employment & Skills, 43% of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) vacancies are hard to fill.[5] Audrey McCulloch, Operations Director of SRG, our life sciences, engineering and clinical recruitment specialists, explained that Covid had led to an unprecedented demand for biological scientists, and while the testing requirement has receded, vaccine developers are still needed. She said: “We’re seeing fewer individuals coming from European countries and that’s creating a skills shortage.”

The root of the skills gap is education. Although there has been an increase in STEM undergraduates over the past few years, only 24% of graduates in STEM subjects are known to be working in a STEM occupation six months later,[6] and two-fifths of employers cited a shortage of STEM graduates as a key barrier to recruiting appropriate staff.[7] Audrey also points to a decrease in the number of students doing industry placements as part of their degree, as well as a number choosing to go back into further education.

And it’s not just in biological sciences. According to Audrey, the chemicals industry is facing a ‘retirement cliff’, and with many due to retire in the next five to 10 years, the candidate pool is being squeezed at both ends.

So, what can we do to reduce the skills gap?

For David, it starts with education. “We need to focus on technology,” he said, pointing to the technology colleges and universities of China, India and Eastern Europe.

Getting girls on board is crucial too. Lorien has partnered with TechGirls to raise awareness of tech careers among schoolgirls. As part of this partnership, the team spoke to pupils in Manchester and London about the opportunities available at one of our well-known retail clients, from product designers and product owners to UX designers. “It opened their minds,” said David. Lorien is also using a tool to make sure job adverts and job specifications are gender neutral.

SRG supports client engagement with universities, and it’s working with one client to promote its apprenticeships and industry placements to future talent. Another client is investing in employee training to plug the skills gap – not only helping to tackle the problem but aiding retention too. “Individuals who go through on-the-job training tend to be a lot more loyal,” explained Audrey.

Retraining employees whose jobs are at risk is another way to meet the skills need – particularly those jobs at risk from the very digital transformation that is driving the demand for tech talent. For example, companies are moving away from project management to more agile methodology, with smaller teams working across a business to deliver new products more quickly. So, why not reskill and retain the project managers?

As for the current job market, with everyone after the same talent, companies must stand out from the crowd to attract talent. Clients are reviewing their compensation and benefits package, with cost-of-living bonuses and share options among the methods being used to attract and retain staff. Lorien has seen average permanent salaries for technology hires increase by 17% since the pandemic, compared to the first half of 2019.

Employers have to be more flexible too. They must be open to remote working, contract recruitment, and hiring candidates those whose skills and experience might not meet the job specification but who have the capability to grow. David said: “We are having to think differently when we’re putting teams together. Fortunately, our clients are open to new ways of doing things – in fact, they were among the early adopters of hybrid working. And as our business covers the whole of the UK, we can give our clients access to talent pools throughout the UK.”

Audrey is also seeing flexibility in a sector that has been more rigid in the past. “We’re talking to clients and asking them to consider, do people have to be on site? Do they have to be based in the country? Some of the big pharmaceutical companies in the UK previously said ‘no’ to remote working, but now they’re realising they don’t need to have all staff on site.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, in today’s disrupted talent market a brand’s value proposition is key to attraction. According to research conducted by Gartner, a strong employee value proposition (EVP) can reduce the compensation premium by 50%, decrease annual employee turnover by just under 70% and increase new hire commitment by nearly 30%.[8] And with more than a third of employees willing to quit their job if their employer does little or nothing to fight the climate crisis – rising to over half (53 per cent) of people aged between 18 and 24 years old[9] – it’s clear that a company’s mission, purpose and values are what attracts candidates to employers – and what keeps them there. David agreed that those clients with an attractive EVP are easier to recruit for – which is why both SRG and Lorien have been working with clients to understand and promote their value proposition. He added: “Money is still a key driver, but purpose is the number one.”

How can we help?

If you need help attracting and retaining the right people, contact Impellam Group.

We’re a collaborative network that delivers the right specialist recruitment and workforce solutions at the right time. 

Our people are specialists in their fields and care about providing good work for people and good people for work.

Our unique, connected way of working gives our customers access to the full breadth of our solutions. Supported by our Customer Office, our customers benefit from a borderless, seamless service that delivers on the promises we make.

In a fast-moving, talent-short, disrupted world, our model delivers more innovation, ideas and growth in less time, more efficiently.

Find out more about how we can help you here.



[1] https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/bulletins/jobsandvacanciesintheuk/latest

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-62098767

[3] Tech Nation, People and Skills Report 2022, https://technation.io/news/uk-tech-jobs-people-skills-report-2022/

[4] https://www.fingent.com/blog/digital-transformation-in-financial-services-all-you-need-to-know

[5] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/ready-and-enabled/stem-skills-shortage/

[6] https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Delivering-STEM-Science-technology-engineering-and-mathematics-skills-for-the-economy-Summary.pdf

[7] https://luminate.prospects.ac.uk/the-uks-stem-skills-shortage

[8] https://www.gartner.com/en/human-resources/insights/employee-engagement-performance/employee-value-proposition

[9] https://www.msn.com/en-gb/money/careersandeducation/employees-are-willing-to-quit-jobs-over-weak-climate-action-by-employer/ar-AA135Wr3

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