Push students into maths subjects or watch industry fail

THE HOUSE of Lords select committee on science and technology has just published an insightful report into higher education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. It rightly suggested that the jobs of the future will increasingly require people with the capabilities and skills that a STEM education provides. However, there is a mismatch between the supply of STEM graduates and postgraduates from higher education institutes and the demand from employers – both in terms of the number of students and the skills and knowledge they acquire.

At Shell, we see this first hand and it is of genuine concern. As an industry, we rely on the rigour and flair of our scientists and engineers to build the vast and highly technical energy infrastructure the world needs. Such projects are often in extremely challenging conditions, like the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico or the North Sea. The reality is, without a strong pipeline of highly qualified scientists and engineers, important projects like these will have fewer and fewer British operators. So what needs to happen?

Firstly, Britain should seriously consider the House of Lords recommendation that mathematics should be compulsory for all students after 16, and that maths to A2 level should be a requirement for students intending to study STEM subjects in higher education. As the report says, the current number of pupils studying maths post-16 is insufficient to meet the level of numeracy needed in modern society, let alone in modern industry.

However, we also need to find solutions to get more STEM students to translate their skills into the career choices they make. Analysis conducted by the then Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, for example, estimated that just over a third of STEM graduates were working in “non-STEM” occupations. This needs to change. And this is where industry – and society – must play a role.

One way industry can help is through forging more partnerships with education providers – to excite young students about STEM subjects. Research shows that children as young as nine are already considering their future career direction. This underlines the importance of engaging children with maths and science early. But we must also ensure that, once children are excited by these subjects, we harness this enthusiasm throughout their academic journey.

We’ve seen the impact this can make through our Shell Education Service, which provides science workshops to 60,000 children in 600 schools, our research and development partnerships with universities, and our global student competitions. As an industry, however, we need much more deep-rooted support on a national level. From both a government and industry perspective, activity to encourage more young people to study STEM subjects is no longer a “nice to have”. It is imperative for long-term economic success in the UK.

Graham van’t Hoff is chairman of Shell UK and vice president CO2 and alternative energies for Shell International.