Demand is increasing for science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills. Graduates from upper-secondary vocational education and training are important providers of STEM skills, but numbers are falling in some countries.
Despite the economic crisis, employment of physical, mathematical and engineering science professionals and associate professionals is around 12% higher in the European Union (EU) (1) in 2013 than it was in 2000 and this trend looks set to continue.
Vocational education and training (VET), including that provided at upper secondary level, is traditionally an important supply line for STEM skills, but there are concerns that the supply of STEM skills may be insufficient and constrain Europe’s economic growth (2).
Demand for STEM professionals and associate professionals is expected to grow by around 8% between now and 2025, much higher than the average 3% growth forecast for all occupations. Employment in STEM-related sectors is also expected to rise by around 6.5% between now and 2025, although this masks big differences between different sectors. For example employment in computing and professional services is expected to rise by some 8% and 15% respectively, while the pharmaceuticals sector is expected to see zero employment growth.
Having STEM skills is no longer sufficient on its own. Graduates at all levels, including those from upper-secondary VET, need personal and behavioural attributes as well as STEM-related skills (3). Creativity, team working, communication and problem solving are needed as scientific knowledge and innovation is increasingly produced by teams that often combine different nationalities as well as different organisations and enterprises. Understanding the application of new technologies in everyday life presents new challenges. In many cases it is not enough that something works well. It should also be well-designed, stylish and desirable for more than just practical features.
Between now and 2025, around two-thirds of the anticipated job openings in STEM-related professions will be to replace people working in these areas but who will retire. Currently, around 48% of STEM-related occupations require medium (upper-secondary) level qualifications, many of which are acquired through initial upper-secondary level VET. This figure is forecast to fall a little to around 46% in 2025 but, despite the image of highly-educated scientists in white coats, most STEM-related occupations will still require medium-level qualifications over the next decade or so.
Demand forecasts are difficult to make for highly competitive science- and technology-driven industries. STEM-related sectors such as pharmaceuticals, motor vehicles, engineering and other types of manufacturing are particularly exposed to the boom-and-bust of the economic cycle. Such sectors are also more prone to restructuring and outsourcing. That demand for STEM-related skills is likely to be highest in professional services reflects how the work has changed. In engineering, for example, work tends to be linked to projects for which external contract engineers are brought in as appropriate. Long-term employment with a single firm has been replaced by temporary assignments that can quickly end when a project ends or the market shifts. These factors affect short- and long-term demand for STEM workers and the skills they need.
However, the Royal Academy of Engineering reported last year that the UK needs 100 000 new STEM university graduates every year until 2020 (4) just to meet demand. Germany’s Deutsche Bank points to a shortage of about 210 000 workers (5) in what they refer to as MINT disciplines—mathematics, computer science, natural sciences and technology. Recruitment difficulties have also been reported for STEM-related skills in several countries including Austria, Hungary and Sweden.
At upper secondary level education, numbers of VET graduates in STEM-related related subjects vary significantly across countries. They account for more than 40% of upper-secondary VET graduates in Bulgaria, Estonia and Cyprus, compared to less than 20% in Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands (see Figure).
Source: Cedefop calculations based on Eurostat, UOE data collection. EU averages are weighted averages of available country data. Calculations exclude the category architecture and building.
The direction and scale of trends are not uniform, but for most countries for which data are available there appears to be a slight decline in the proportion of upper-secondary VET graduates in STEM-related subjects, with the estimated EU average dropping from 32% in 2006 to 29.4% in 2011. But it is difficult to say how significant this decline is. There are also concerns about the quality of maths and science learning at earlier stages of schooling. The 2012 PISA results showed that around 16.5% of pupils aged 15 had low science levels and 22% were low achievers in maths in 27 EU Member States (6).
Maintaining a healthy supply of STEM-related skills
Whether or not the supply of STEM skills meets demand depends on more than simple comparisons between forecast employment opportunities and anticipated numbers of graduates.
Maintaining a healthy supply of STEM-related skills rests on several factors. While young upper-secondary level graduates in STEM-related subjects are needed, it is also important to provide opportunities for adult workers to acquire and update STEM skills throughout working life. Learning opportunities are essential in areas of rapid technological change. Beyond learning, STEM-related jobs and careers need to be attractive both to draw students to STEM-related subjects and to ensure that qualified people do not chose careers in other areas.
Europe also faces competition for highly-skilled STEM professionals from countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia (7). Europe is not the preferred destination for many skilled third-country nationals, including STEM professionals (8). This is due to various things, such as work permit regulations, access to citizenship, language, quality of employment and the extent of ethnic diversity. It needs to be remembered that Europe is not just competing in goods and services but also for talent.
(1) 27 Member States, excluding Croatia.
(6) All EU Member States except Malta
(8) OECD (2012) Connecting with Emigrants, A Global Profile of Diasporas OECD (2012). [cited 16.01.2014]