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‘Stem graduates ‘are qualified for just about any job’

Innovation partner profile: Science Foundation Ireland

 

While there is certainly a growing need for graduates in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects from a range of growth sectors across the economy, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) director general Prof Mark Ferguson believes there are compelling reasons beyond direct job opportunities for students to consider courses in this area.

“There are obviously a huge range of job opportunities for Stem graduates; the economy is crying out for engineers and ICT professionals,” he says.

“But this is just one way of looking at Stem. The other way is philosophical. A science education helps you develop a way of thinking and gives you the skills to gather evidence, analyse it and make decisions based on it.

“Stem graduates are qualified for just about any job – they are not restricted to the particular domain dealt with by their course.”

He points out that his own initial qualification was in dentistry but he subsequently went on to different areas of science and eventually to taking the reins at SFI and becoming chief scientific adviser to the government.

In-demand jobs

“The prospects are very good for graduates,” says Ferguson. “There is a huge amount of opportunities for them and the research shows they are paid more than graduates from other disciplines and their starting salaries are higher.

“They are also prepared for the jobs of the future – jobs which don’t yet exit. Telephone apps weren’t around 10 years ago, for example. In fact, the top 10 in-demand jobs today didn’t exist 10 years ago. The pace of this change is accelerating and a Stem qualification sets graduates up for it.”

In this light, it is difficult to see why more school-leavers do not opt for Stem courses. According to Ferguson there are two key influencing factors involved. The first is the student’s own view of themselves and the second is their parents’ opinions.

“Our research shows that people know all about the jobs and the money,” he says. “But the number one factor when it comes to choosing a course is whether they think they will fit in or not.

“There are a lot of stereotypes around science graduates and people wonder if they will fit in with a class of maths or physics students.”

This is also important for parents who want to know that their child will be happy.

“That’s why educating people about the diversity of courses on offer and the range of career opportunities that awaits graduates is so important,” he says.

“We need to overcome the stereotypes. IT people are considered nerdy and antisocial, for example. But you wouldn’t regard the people working for Google, Apple and LinkedIn in that way and all of those people have advanced IT and computer skills.”

He believes this is an issue for women in particular. “We still see a lot of women applying for life sciences courses instead of engineering or computer science.

“We need to change this. It’s a question of where people can see themselves and we need them to see role models they can relate to.”

SFI’s Smart Futures programme does just that. This sees volunteers with Stem backgrounds visiting schools around the country to tell students about their own careers and the opportunities out there if they choose a science course.

“We now have more than 1,300 volunteers on the Smart Futures database,” Ferguson points out. “We trained more than 500 of them in the past year alone and during the past academic year, the volunteers reached 33,000 teenagers.

“The number of school visits has increased by 24 per cent between 2013 and 2016 and our aim is to have every second- level school in Ireland visited in the 2020 academic year.”

The programme is also offering a valuable research opportunity. “We will be able to assess the impact of the visits,” Ferguson explains.

“It is a kind of controlled experiment and we will be able to look at numbers of students from schools visited who choose Stem courses and compare this to the numbers from schools not yet visited. That could give us some very valuable information.”

Looking ahead to the near-term future he points to the huge number of jobs being created in construction and other sectors which will require Stem-qualified people in the coming years.

“The construction industry is expanding rapidly and creating strong demand for architects, engineers, surveyors, managers and a whole range of other professionals.

“There will be 80,000- 100,000 new jobs created in construction over the next few years and many of these will require science skills.

“But these things go in cycles and demand from different sectors goes up and down. One thing is for sure though, people with generic Stem skills will always be able to find a job. There will always be demand for people with science training.”