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Published 24/08/2020 11:40:00, by Marina Maher

We need a new way to tackle the UK’s STEM skills gap.

With STEM jobs expected to double over the next decade, British businesses and the UK economy are going to be hit even harder by the shortfall - currently estimated to be costing the industry £1.5bn.

One thing doesn’t add up though, talented engineers still find it hard to get a job – especially if they’ve taken a career break.

This is the hidden workforce; thousands of skilled STEM professionals who feel abandoned.

Traditional recruitment methods are often accompanied by unconscious predispositions – defining candidates by their career on paper.

At STEM Returners we work with businesses to get engineers back into work, providing programmes that judge candidates on their ability and application, through a paid placement scheme.

During the Lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, we took the time to speak to 350 engineers as part of our study, titled ‘The Hidden Workforce’.

We found that 8 out of 10 people seeking to return to jobs in the engineering industry felt they have been the victims of a ‘biased’ recruiting system, and two-thirds felt the traditional recruitment process works against them.

Whilst already a significant issue, this ‘bias’ is going to have a significant impact on the efforts to reemploy the thousands facing redundancy because of the pandemic.

Groups facing the biggest barriers to re-entry include female engineers responsible for childcare and those from ethnic minorities including refugees. Graduates from ethnic minorities are also facing significantly high barriers to entering the industry.

UK domiciled BAME engineers make up 27% of all engineering graduates, but only make up 7.8% of the total UK engineering workforce. it’s clear to see the industry has a problem it needs to address.

Like other marginalised groups, BAME engineers find it incredibly tough to get past the initial stage of the recruitment process.

Career breaks work against candidates in the CV-Screening stage and more than likely they don’t even make it to interview stage. These old-fashioned recruitment methods view a career-break as a period of time where a candidate’s skills have deteriorated. Our results refute this emphatically, with engineers actually gaining skills that are valuable to employers.


At STEM Returners our aim has always been to show the industry that we don’t have to adhere to the outdated recruitment methods that have failed many STEM professionals.

We’ve been successful, over 150 engineers returned to work with great inroads made on diversity. 45% of our returners that gained a full-time job have been women, whilst 34% have come from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) background.

96% of all those who take part in a 12-week placement are retained in a permanent position by their host company.    

The programmes don’t just benefit candidates though.  For businesses who are quite rightly cautious after the turmoil of this year, it gives an opportunity to assess a candidate in a fair way, making sure they’re right for a role in a way that reading a CV won’t tell you.

We’ve found that attracting and recruiting returners as a separate strategy works alongside standard recruitment. Conflicting priorities, line managers and employers searching for ‘their’ perception of the best candidate, creates an unequal opportunity for returners to be considered.

The other benefit to firms is diversification. It should be a priority for the industry to make the UK workforce as diverse as possible, plugging the skills gap with a wide range of engineers from all genders, races and classes, to create a dynamic sector.

There’s no such thing as a ‘standard returner’. People take career breaks for a huge variety of reasons including maternity or caring responsibilities, ill health or redundancy and relocation.

We need to ensure returners have an equal opportunity and change a culture that still views career breaks negatively.

Instead, we need to understand that a career break is a completely normal part of many people's working life and whilst we celebrate the skills returned to the sector, it is now imperative that the industry comes together, to build on them for the benefit of all.


For more information The full report; STEM: The Hidden Workforce can be accessed in PDF form here: https://www.stemreturners.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/STEM_-The-Hidden-Workforce.pdf



Natalie Desty, Director / Founder of Stem Returners

Tel: 07850766392

Email : Natalie.desty@stemreturners.com



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