Training ‘accidental’ scientists is key to tackling STEM skills shortages

A large number of workers are keen and just waiting for the right qualification to fill STEM workforce gaps – if we can identify them, explains Jemma Perks

A large number of workers are keen and just waiting for the right qualification to fill STEM workforce gaps – if we can identify them, explains Jemma Perks

10 Oct 2023, 5:00

Young people are finding that it’s never too late to start a new career in science, even if they lack the formal STEM qualifications that employers might normally expect. Others have fallen into a science-related job by accident, but now require certain qualifications and training to progress to the next level in their career.

Identifying these ‘accidental’ scientists and giving them access to flexible, higher-level training, which doesn’t require them to attend university could help employers to attract and retain the talent they need to grow their businesses. Crucially, it could also help to close the STEM skills gap which, if left unaddressed, could undermine the UK’s economic prosperity.

Recent data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that demand for STEM skills is growing. In April to June 2023, just over three million people were employed in science and technology roles, which represents about 9 per cent of the UK’s total workforce.

During the pandemic, the world of scientific research and development was thrown into the spotlight as pharmaceutical and biotech companies were forced to recruit teams of unskilled people to support them in the race to find an effective Covid vaccine. Some retail and office workers took up opportunities to work in laboratories or help with the delivery of vaccination programmes. Many of these people have since chosen to continue their career in science but have got stuck in low-level roles doing data entry or sample preparation, unable to take things further.

What these individuals might lack in terms of formal qualifications, they make up for in a willingness to learn and attain new skills. Some already have several years of work experience under their belts. As a provider of higher-level science apprenticeships, The S&A Science Academy can spot people with the right characteristics and aptitude to complete a three-year course leading to Higher National Diploma and a recognised apprenticeship qualification, accredited by the Institute of Apprenticeships.

Accidental scientists are spread across our workforce now

Initially, some learners are unaware that doing a science apprenticeship could lead to a degree-level qualification, and that they can choose to specialise by opting onto an adjacent course in chemical science or life science. These career-minded learners are not only well-motivated to complete their training, but they are also committed to their employer and often have a positive impact on workplace culture and productivity long after their training has finished.

While places on Level 5 technician scientist apprenticeship programmes are currently in high demand, there are a variety of entry points available for those with relevant experience and those without.

For example, a learner can train to become a skilled technician scientist by attending training on a day-release basis in agreement with their employer, or through a period of block study. As well as enriching their company’s talent base, employers that choose to place the training and development of their employees in the hands of an Ofsted-regulated apprenticeship provider are able to do so free of charge. They also aren’t liable for employer national insurance contributions while the training is underway.

By far the most popular choice for employers and learners is to complete training on a day-release basis. This means that the learner spends 80 per cent of their time at work and 20 per cent with the training provider. This option is popular with employers because they start to see the value of the training in the workplace immediately. It’s also popular with learners as they gain a sense of progression as they work, and they can clearly see where their study is taking them.

Accidental scientists are spread across our workforce now, with large and small employers alike. They are in jobs that are easy to replace and just waiting for the opportunity for a more fulfilling career. Many more are in our colleges, unaware of the opportunities available to them to jump across from adjacent courses.

With STEM skills in growing demand, all in the education sector could be doing more to look-out for this under-realised talent pool and persuading businesses that upskilling these employees could become a key differentiator for them in the future.

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