Skilled immigrants needed to plug STEM skills deficit

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Some 30% of UK Gross Domestic Product is produced by science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) sectors and there is growing demand for STEM skills and strong evidence that demand will outstrip supply.

Speaking at the Royal Academy of Engineering in London, Chartered Engineer Chi Onwurah MP said that high quality engineering skills are only going to become more important in the future, and said that the UK needs to utilise international skills whilst doing more to drive young people, and women in particular, into science, technology engineering and maths-based careers.

Onwurah warned, however, that the bureaucracy and complexity of obtaining a visa to work in the UK give the impression that the UK does not welcome people, even though we need their skills. She also pointed out that, “Importing STEM skills cannot be used as an excuse not to invest in them”.

Representing the Trades Union Congress, Policy Officer Rosa Crawford emphasised the need for employment protections and a managed policy that meets the UK’s economic needs and provides migrant workers with decent pay and conditions, so that British workers are not undercut. Crawford stressed that immigration of skilled workers must not replace the training of our own workforce.

Crawford said: “Cuts in education services, the trebling of tuition fees and rising costs of adult education are making it harder for people of all ages to gain new skills. The increasing use of informal contracts in the manufacturing sector is also a concern.”

Sinead Lawrence, Senior Policy Adviser at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), said that CBI members are suffering from skills shortages and that this situation will only worsen as other countries look to rebalance their own economies by boosting manufacturing output, which means the international competition for engineering skills is rising.

Nida Broughton, a Senior Economist at the Social Market Foundation (SMF), explained that the SMF’s calculations have identified a 40,000 STEM graduate annual deficit. “This is a huge challenge and it’s difficult to see how, in the short term, it will be addressed with only home grown skills.” Broughton suggested that a long-term solution, beginning at primary school level, is required and that the evidence points toward a need for a greater number of quality maths and science teachers.

“In the UK there seems to be an anti-immigration hysteria, which is destroying British investment prospects, British education and research, and British jobs. It should be decisively rejected, because the reality is we are operating in a global economy and we need to benefit from an international workforce,” commented David Brown, Chief Executive of the Institution of Chemical Engineers.

Brown continued, “I’m proud that people want to come to our country – to, study here, contribute and work here. We should encourage and welcome them, because it’s right and essential for our economic future. Engineering employers should be able to hire straight out of international universities and to relocate skilled workers, and their families, easily.”

Chairing the discussion, Sir William Wakeham FREng, Senior Vice President, Royal Academy of Engineering, said, “There is solid econometric evidence that the demand for graduate engineers exceeds supply and that this demand is pervasive across the UK economy. If we are to achieve our goals in the areas of jobs and economic growth, the government needs to be realistic about meeting these needs. Migration is a complex policy area, and there is no doubt that importing skills from abroad brings with it its own set of issues and dependencies.

“The Academy’s Engineering for Growth campaign aims to raise debate on the biggest challenges facing engineering and the economy, and this event has enabled us explore some of these issues, and to open a dialogue between policymakers, engineers and other stakeholders to ensure that developments in migration policy do not hamper our ability to access the science, technology and engineering skills necessary for a return to long-term growth.”

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