S4-D&BP4-3 - Tackling the digital and engineering skills shortage: Understanding young people and their career aspirations

3. Research Full Paper
Annie Padwick1 , Carol Davenport1, Rebecca Strachan1, Joe Shimwell1, Melanie Horan1
1 Northumbria University

Full paper. Technology is changing the world and the nature of jobs. The World Economic Forum predicts over 130 million new roles will be created by new combinations of humans, machines and algorithms [1]. We need to prepare young people for this future yet many young people are not choosing careers in digital technology or wider STEM areas and globally, one in five of young people remain unemployed [2]. North East England has one of the highest unemployment rates in the UK [3] and the region’s young people have been characterised as having ‘poverty of aspiration’ [4]. Once an important hub for traditional industries, engineering and manufacture, the region suffered significant losses in the 1980s [5], but is emerging as a strong performer in digital/creative technology, energy, and manufacturing [6]. These fields require high-level STEM skills yet a shortage in the workforce is still being predicted [7].  

It is crucial to understand young people and how to support them better. Building on the understanding that children’s career aspirations are formed early [8], this research study asks ‘what factors influence children’s reported aspirations to jobs, and in particular STEM jobs?’ A survey  of children (n=622) aged 7-11 years was carried out.

The findings show that contrary to popular narrative, these children do not show ‘poverty of aspiration’. They have high aspirations with 77% falling within the highest three Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) [9], and the majority having ‘higher’ aspirations than their current parents/carers employment. Children’s appetite for STEM careers is also strong, with 39% reporting at least one STEM aspiration. The most common STEM aspirations are: vet, doctor, scientist, nurse, engineer, mechanic and games designer.

More girls report STEM aspirations than boys, however over 90% of these align to health and life sciences demonstrating that gender stereotypes in STEM persist. The range of STEM aspirations girls report is around half that of the boys, with no girls reporting aspirations in engineering or games design. 51% of girls choose STEM jobs to ‘help others’, compared to 20% of boys.

To create a sustainable future, education needs to address these challenges. This study provides evidence of the need for early careers related interventions particularly those that challenge gender stereotypes and highlight the role of STEM in helping others.

[1] World Economic Forum: Insights Report. “The Future of Jobs 2018”. 2018.
[2] S. Kühn, “Global employment and social trends. World Employment and Social Outlook”, 2019.
[3] Office for National Statistics, “Regional Labour Market Statistics” December. 2015.
[4] P. Vardy, “Poverty of aspiration is barrier new business creation in the North East”. [Address to North East Regional Information Partnership]. 3 November. 2006.
[5] C. Hodgson, D. Charles, “Case Study – North East England (UK) Work Package 4: Structural Change and Globalisation. KITE. 2008.
[6] North East LEP, “Areas of business growth opportunity”. 2020.
[7] UKCES. "Reviewing the requirement for high level STEM skills." 2015.
[8] G. Leslie, R. Akerman. “Determinants of aspirations. WBL. University of London. 2008.
[9] ONS, “ONS Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) Hierarchy”. 2020.