Look around you and it’s staggering how much of our lives are dependent on science and technology, and how lost we become when that technology fails, writes Alistair Cox.
Carl Sagan made this prophetic quote many years ago. “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anybody knows anything about science and technology”, and how true it remains today. We’ve all felt the frustration when our mobile phone signal is lost or we have a problem logging onto the web. Lost and powerless, and massively dependent on the people who can design, build and maintain these things we take for granted. Yet at the same time, according to recent reports, we are facing a huge shortage of these people.
Research suggests we need to educate twice as many people in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) as we currently do, if we want to fill the jobs that are going to be created in the science and technology fields. Now, my first job was as an apprentice engineer so I’ve always been fascinated by technology and innovation. However, it appears that the STEM subjects are a long way down the list of topic choices for many students. Around this time of year, a lot of teenagers are deciding what to study at university. Too few will opt for one of the STEM subjects – certainly, in insufficient numbers to meet the future needs of industry. Yet these subjects open the way to a wide range of jobs and careers, including jobs and roles that have not even been invented yet. I think that’s an exciting prospect, so why the apathy? Part of the problem, I believe, is that we start promoting these choices to young people far too late, only once they’re teenagers. STEM subjects – and how they can be applied practically in the real world – are exciting and they change the way we live. We think of the new products and businesses that appear on a daily basis as cool and must-have. Yet this desire to have the latest gizmo or sign up to the latest social media site doesn’t seem to translate into wanting to be a part of creating these new ideas, and therein lies the problem. Solving this and making this connection requires us to present these ideas and ignite this interest at an early stage of the education system. We are leaving it too late to spark the interest of young people. Indeed, this issue was raised at the recent Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai, where teaching STEM topics as early as primary school was declared to be one of the best ways to counter the shortage of STEM graduates.
In terms of teaching STEM subjects at a more senior educational level, some countries are ahead of the pack – the US, for instance, is making the promotion of STEM skills a priority to help drive economic growth, and many of its universities top the global rankings in these areas. Elsewhere, other nations are also making progress with universities in Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Korea now among the best places to study the STEM disciplines.
As Carl Sagan also said: “We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.” It is clear we need more and better teachers who will inspire the tech-literate workers of tomorrow. Young people need to be enthused that these subjects are not the difficult option, but that they can lead to an enormous variety of jobs and career paths, for girls as well as boys.
Solving this dilemma will create huge opportunities for people, business and society. Not solving it will create problems throughout the future.
Alistair Cox is Chief Executive of recruitment specialist Hays plc