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How to inspire the future generation to pursue a career in STEM

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Sarah Chapman, Senior Technical Manager at 3M EMEA and an advocate for diversity in STEM, explores the potential solutions to the electrical industry’s labour shortages. 

In a 2022 study by the Electrical Contractors’ Association (ECA), it was highlighted that while order books continue to grow in the UK following the pandemic, a shrinking electrical skills workforce is negatively impacting electrotechnical contracting businesses. 47% of respondents to the survey said that ‘attracting the right calibre of people to the business’ was their biggest worry, while 41% said their top concern was to ‘retain existing staff’. If we do not address this worsening problem, a shrinking labour force could wreak havoc on the electrical industry, only compounding existing pressure from Britain’s recession.

In order to combat this risk and drive business forward, it is imperative that the outdated lens in which the electrical contracting sector is currently perceived is replaced. Recent research from 3M’s 2023 State of Science Index (SOSI), which tracks global attitudes towards science, found that 88% (vs. 90% globally) believe if the image of skilled trade careers improved, more people would choose to go into one. 

Further, 54% (vs. 58% globally) say parents are discouraging their children from pursuing a skilled trade and 47% (vs. 56% globally) believe there is a negative stigma around being a skilled trade worker. From this research alone, it is evident that the industry is suffering from a significant lack of awareness. By neglecting the opportunity to showcase the industry and its perks, we risk excluding potential talent from pursuing a career in the industry.  

Interest is sparked in the classroom

Sparking this initial interest in a career in the electrical industry will begin in the classroom. We need to show potential students what a career in the electrical contracting industry looks like today; an industry that looks markedly different from a decade ago. The skilled trades industry has experienced change in recent years with the widespread adoption of increasingly sophisticated technologies that are revolutionising ways of working at every level. In a world that has become more digitised and dependent on electricity, it cannot be underestimated how significant innovation in the industry has impacted the electricity sector.

Providing students with tangible opportunities to learn first-hand what a career in the industry now looks like can stimulate an interest in a skilled trade career from otherwise indifferent candidates. 3M’s Manufacturing and Academic Partnerships Programme invests in initiatives that introduce students to opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). This initiative supplies students with an awareness of the lucrative and in-demand careers in the skilled trade industry and therefore fosters a curiosity in the careers on offer in the sector.

Generating recognisable role models

The latest Common Assessment Standard (CAS) from Build UK, Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA), and the Electrical Contractors’ Association (ECA) has recently been updated to include diversity requirements. This document is a pre-qualification questionnaire that is used by clients to assess the suitability of prospective bidders. It is now widely accepted that diversity is a prerequisite to successful business and an unavoidable factor for electrical contractors to address.

The aforementioned survey found that 87% (vs. 91% globally) believe it is important to increase diversity, equity and inclusion in skilled trade fields. However, to continue to drive this forward, it is imperative that we champion and celebrate industry-wide representation of recognisable role models. Ultimately, these recognisable role models will be the defining factor in influencing who will pursue a career in the skilled trades sector.

Supported learning experiences like 3M’s Skilled Trades Scholarship Initiative give individuals exclusive, first-hand access into the day-to-day life in these roles, and offers an unparalleled insight into what a career in the industry may look like in practice. Tangible learning experiences like these will have a profound effect on inspiring young people. Ultimately, they will help to secure a robust and diverse talent pipeline for the electrical contracting industry.

Company initiatives – a key component

Increasing the talent pool of skilled electrical personnel requires not only education, but also adequate support and incentives. Employers must provide prospective talent with clear career trajectories that highlight the value of these vocations and encourage young people to consider them a viable option for life-long employment.

To do this successfully, organisations can begin to support those who enter a skilled trade programme or access a course with tangible and meaningful benefits. For example, scholarships like 3M’s Skilled Trades Scholarship celebrate students who choose to pursue skilled trade occupations, particularly those from underrepresented groups, and offer clear career trajectories while highlighting the value of these vocations. The importance of electrical contractors to an increasingly digitalised economy cannot be ignored. It is precisely these company-backed initiatives that will unlock access to skilled trade employees for businesses, whilst simultaneously ensuring equitable access to these lucrative career paths.

Through implementing education awareness, we can begin to create the necessary infrastructure required to support prospective talent entering the profession and begin to resolve the alarming skills gap that currently threatens the UK’s electrical sector. The skilled trade industry is too often viewed with outdated attitudes that require a combined effort from corporations, schools, and higher education facilities to change. It is only through challenging these outdated assumptions about an increasingly technologically-sophisticated industry that we can gain access to a robust and diverse talent pipeline of electrical personnel for years to come.

Sarah Chapman

Senior Technical Manager at 3M EMEA

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