STEM careers: inspiring the next generation

Engineering is hugely important to the UK economy. Between March 2015 and March 2016, engineering enterprises in the UK generated 23.2% (£1.23 trillion) of the UK total turnover, yet the news is full of headlines about the shortage of skilled engineers in the UK. This year EngineeringUK reported that there is now an annual shortfall of up to 59,000 engineering graduates and technicians to fill core engineering roles. Why is this happening? What can companies do to help? And, in the sea of endless options, which science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) organisation should you work with?

Why is this happening?

Recent research from EngineeringUK shows there is potential for ‘leakage’ at each stage of the STEM pipeline, as students make decisions about the next stage of their education. This affects both genders, but it is particularly stark for females. EngineeringUK found that 50% of the entrants taking GCSE physics were female, yet this translates to just 16% of engineering and technology first degrees, and 8% of engineering apprenticeships.

Source: Engineering UK: The State of Engineering

Source: Engineering UK: The State of Engineering

There are many reasons why this is happening. When looking into the issue, two reasons stood out to Ocado Engineering. The first was the shortage of STEM teachers: EngineeringUK reported that the number of STEM specialist teachers has stagnated since 2015, but pupil numbers have grown by nearly half a million between 2011 and 2016.

The second challenge is the general understanding and awareness of engineering. There is a need to give young people access to inspirational, engineering-focused engagement activities, which can help to ensure they experience real life applications of engineering and make well-informed subject and career decisions.

What can companies do to help?

Investing in Education projects has been part of Ocado’s wider Corporate Responsibility strategy for many years. Given that most engineering companies (including us) have experienced the shortage of engineers first hand, at the end of 2017 Ocado Engineering and the Ocado Foundation chose to design a programme for the Year of Engineering campaign. This government-based initiative aims to give young people direct and inspiring experiences of the world of engineering. What quickly became clear was the need to partner with an experienced organisation to guide us through the STEM landscape. This is reinforced by EngineeringUK, who cite “too many initiatives” as a key challenge to addressing the skills shortage in engineering. They explain that schools often struggle to identify which STEM engagement initiatives are most appropriate and impactful for their setting.

When Ocado Engineering started discussing outreach strategies with organisations, we realised we wanted to focus on two important factors: outreach local to our sites and project-based work. Ocado already had initiatives with national reach, such as Code for Life, which is a non-profit platform from Ocado Technology that delivers free games and teaching materials to help students learn to code. However, as we wanted to engage directly with students, we chose to limit our outreach to within 10 miles of our engineering sites (you can find where these sites are here). We also decided to focus our attention on project-based work - we wanted students to experience STEM principles in real life and have the chance to speak to, and learn from, STEM mentors over a longer period of time. We hoped this would allow young people to make well-informed subject and career decisions.

Which STEM organisation should you work with?

Earlier this year, Ocado Engineering and the Ocado Foundation decided to work with the Engineering Development Trust (EDT), a STEM charity with almost 35 years experience, delivering over 40,000 STEM experiences each year. Their huge array of outreach activities quickly stood out to us, and we were confident they could help us develop a scalable outreach strategy, which could continue to grow for years to come.

How are the EDT and Ocado working together?

Ocado is very excited to be engaging with the EDT in a variety of projects ranging from six-month projects with A level students, to a one-day activity to help students to understand possible routes into STEM careers.

We are thrilled to announce that today is the launch of the Go4SET hub in Hertfordshire. The mission of this initiative is to engage students from local schools in a real-world engineering project. During the two month programme, students aged 12-14 will design an environmentally-friendly factory, using new, sustainable ways to create the energy it needs to run. The Go4SET scheme offers students a real insight into STEM subjects, environmental challenges, industry and academia, and encourages informed school subject choices at a critical path.

What success have we seen?

Most recently we have seen our six-month project, the Engineering Education Scheme (EES) run with the EDT, come to fruition. The EES allows students to collaborate on a real-world issue with mentors from the industry. The students involved had the chance to experience engineering in the real world, develop their skills in problem solving, communication, documentation, planning, report writing and presenting. In April, the Monk’s Walk students went head to head against other local schools to present their findings and impress the judges with their outcome.

For more information on Ocado Engineering's outreach activities, please click here.

About the Ocado Foundation
The Ocado Foundation was established in April 2015 with the aim of helping Ocado employees and customers make a difference across the UK. We choose projects and charities where our input will be the most valuable and our impact the greatest. Our charitable initiatives cover the environment, education and entrepreneurship, and eating well.

george smith