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STEM sell research

Mark Williams & Dr Wai Yi Feng

Industry bodies agree that more needs to be done to inspire young people into studying STEM subjects and careers, but this does not seem to have resulted in action to engage in “STEM enrichment” activity in schools. There is still a disconnect from the development and delivery of STEM employer engagement programmes with young people. Nurturing future talent from being a CSR activity into being a business critical function. Article by Mark Williams, Education Director – The Engineering EDT & Dr Wai Yi Feng, Royal Society Ogden Education Research Fellow, University of Cambridge, Faculty of Education.

EDT (The Engineering Development Trust) has been facilitating employer engagement with schools for over 30 years, firstly with engineering experiences and, in the last ten years, with Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) placement, taster and project experiences. The charity annually involves over 40,000 students in work-related learning programmes for 11-21 year olds across the UK. With some notable exceptions, the impetus within companies to engage with future STEM talent comes typically from STEM professionals themselves, or perhaps from those responsible for Corporate Social Responsibility. There are a number of possible explanations for this: HR sees the recruitment and care of existing staff as their remit, not the supporting of the education, skills training and inspiration into STEM careers of their company’s future talent pool, which is often viewed as belonging within CSR. Business/education links can operate with a number of different age groups, for different durations and with varying content.

While expert in adult skills training, HR may feel in need of support in designing experiences for those of school age. In particular, they may need guidance on the optimum balance of activities to achieve desirable planned outcomes. The activity may be seen as a cost if it comes from their budgets rather than as an investment in the Company’s future business. In the light of the long heralded, and now widely-experienced, STEM skills shortages across UK industry, the first explanation would seem myopic for a business function which has the remit to ensure the right people with the right skills are recruited into the business. All commentators, industry bodies and leaders seem agreed that more needs to be done to inspire young people into studying STEM subjects and taking up STEM careers, but this does not seem to have resulted in action to engage in “STEM enrichment” activity in schools by HR teams, the professional discipline that seems most naturally placed to do so. We must therefore assume that other factors are in play and will focus here on the other two possible explanations for why HR often does not appear ready to engage with future STEM talent.

If uncertainty over how to measure Employer Engagement programme impact, and therefore demonstrate value, is a cause of inertia, then research by Dr Wai Yi Feng, Royal Society Ogden Education Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education might offer a way forward. Stage 1 of Dr Feng’s research involved both a framework for understanding “STEM enrichment” and a typology of “enrichment impact”. This work took in reviews of scholarly and professional literature, observation of enrichment programmes, interviews with students participating in enrichment, interviews with adults organising or providing enrichment activities, and analysis of documents associated with enrichment programmes and activities. Focusing on the impact of enrichment on participating students, Dr Feng found certain experiences and outcomes mentioned again and again. These can be clustered around five broad types: Support for learning in school; Enhanced understanding of STEM topics or disciplines, which is then often linked to the development of more positive views or attitudes towards STEM; Development of skills and learning processes; Personal and social development; Gaining insights into STEM related study or careers, which, in turn, often leads to a greater likelihood of pursuing STEM-related study or careers. While all are clearly desirable impacts it might be argued that HR investment in employer engagement programmes would favour programmes which showed particularly strong impacts in the areas of 2), 3) and 5), and therefore, might be expected to have direct effects on the size and ability of the pool of STEM candidates available in the future. Stage 2 of Dr Feng’s research might offer a way forward on this front.

Dr Feng has shown how a questionnaire can be developed to explore impact in these five areas, utilising students’ feedback to rate different facets of impact in the five areas against six Likert responses from “Not at all/not relevant” through “to a very large extent”. Using a quadratic scale to score these responses (thus accentuating positive responses) enables indicators (mean scores) to be found to summarise the amount of impact attributed to each individual facet and to each of the five impact types. An impact profile for the engagement programme can then be generated. It is then possible to compare the impacts for different programmes, with HR professionals perhaps being encouraged to favour programmes that showed good results for impact areas 2),3 and 5). Applying the profiling tool that Dr Feng had developed to existing programmes is at an early stage, but shows great promise in its ability to demonstrate comparative impact of programmes and the intensity of different impacts within programmes. The profiling tool offers the opportunity to evaluate many questions, for example: Do students of different gender, or background, or prior experience report different experiences and outcomes from participating in the same programme?

This might enable HR to assess whether diversity issues are being addressed appropriately and to target investment in programmes to support talent cultivation and recruitment by using information about which groups are most likely to respond most positively to different types of programmes. Sometimes, programmes are adapted to run at different locations or hubs. Do students who have taken part in different forms of the same programme report similar experiences? This might offer HR the opportunity to benchmark delivery of a single programme across the country. The cost of running programmes, direct costs as well as costs of time, will vary from programme to programme so there is a question of what sort of return in terms of student experience and impact outcomes would be considered reasonable, or good, or excellent, for the investment, given the nature of the programme on offer? The question of “value for money” or “best buy” given a particular set of outcomes that is required for students, must be carefully considered. There is much experience within companies, often within the very STEM functions that have need of the future skills that employer engagement promises and unlocking this knowledge to avoid continual “reinvention of the wheel” has been one of the purposes of Industrial Cadets – an initiative inspired by HRH The Prince of Wales and piloted by Tata Steel in the North East of England. From these beginnings, Industrial Cadets progressed to being an employer-led project to develop an accreditation framework applicable to a wide range of work placement experiences, particularly in the STEM industries. The accreditation is now a fully developed national standard at Gold, Silver and Bronze levels.

The Industrial Cadets accreditation framework for workplace experiences allows a range of activities to be mapped against resultant skills and competencies to ensure that maximum benefit can be obtained by young people at different award levels. The flexibility of the framework allows employers to devise workplace activities which meet their needs as well as meeting the requirements of the Industrial Cadets accreditation framework at particular levels. The young people who take part become ‘Industrial Cadets’ by completing the programme and the accreditation provides them with the assurance of high quality workplace experiences which will help them to: Get insight into the workplace though quality experiences; Gain recognition from a national and quality renowned scheme; Gain insights as to how a business operates; Develop personal skills suited to employment; Be aware of career routes open to them; Raise their aspirations and achievements. The initiative is growing apace and has now involved almost 10,000 students from 1000 schools with over 200 accredited employers. As a result of this participation, 97 percent of the cadets said their work skills improved and 87 percent felt more likely to enter the industry in which they undertook Industrial Cadets. Industrial Cadets is a clear way in which HR departments that are minded to start development of a future talent pool can draw on the expertise of others in designing workplace experiences for young people. A range of different examples of placements are available at the different award levels and the accreditation allows the security of knowing that a customised work placement design meets the criteria of a proven framework.

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