By Alastair O'Brien

The skills shortage facing digital technology industries has been well documented, raised in devolved and national parliaments and discussed throughout the industry. This, plus the fact we have a scarcity of jobs for school leavers, means that we, as part of the digital industry, with many vacancies, must take action.

A staggering 27 per cent of job growth in London is generated by the technology and digital sector and it is estimated that we will see around 100,000 vacancies arise annually in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) related roles in years to come. In contrast, the number of Stem graduates has fallen by 23 per cent over the past 10 years and, to satisfy demand, the digital industry will require a further 40,000 Stem graduates each year.

Scotland seems to suffer particularly badly, with one in four vacancies left unfilled due to a lack of skilled candidates, compared to one in five in England and Wales, according to the UKCESS 2013 survey.

This isn’t just bad for business; the economy ends up being hit from both sides, with an underperforming business sector and the strain of increased unemployment. The OECD calls it an “unacceptable waste of human potential” in its Skills Outlook 2015 report.

Stem industries in particular are feeling the squeeze. Universities in Scotland are struggling to meet the needs of a sector that has seen huge and rapid advances in the past few years. According to a recent ScotlandIS report, it is estimated that 83 per cent of digital technology organisations in Scotland plan to increase staff numbers. Combined with the lack of jobs available for school leavers and non-Stem graduates, the skills shortage is setting Scotland’s technology industry on course for serious economic problems.

The reasons behind the Stem skills gap are complex and manifold. The gender imbalance between graduates who pursue a career in the industry is one example. The most pressing and addressable factor, however, is the lack of interest in science and maths related subjects among young people.

Getting people interested in, and excited about, Stem subjects from an early age is an essential step towards addressing the skills gap and ensuring that the country’s talent pipeline does not dry up. Yet with factors like the ever-decreasing number of computing teachers in Scottish schools – whose ranks have dwindled by 14 per cent since 2012, according to the Computing at School Scotland report – students have a diminishing chance of obtaining these vital skills, or becoming interested in IT as a subject.

To properly protect against an ever-expanding skills gap there needs to be a culture shift in our education system. We need to work with education institutes to better promote Stem skills, as well as fostering curiosity, problem solving and creativity and promoting closer relationships with businesses. The industry can also do its bit to communicate with local schools and make teachers and students enthused about potential careers in the technology industry.

At Lockheed Martin, we work with Career Ready to provide mentors to local school pupils to improve their confidence, professional networks and broaden available opportunities. Our recent intake of pupils completed their four-week placement with us and left excited about opportunities in the technology industry; some started the placement wanting to study law and left with a desire to focus on a Stem related degree. We also work with a recognised educational charity to deliver Stem days to excite younger school pupils in science, technology and design.

There is clearly a will to address the skills shortage across the UK, if the media and politicians are to be believed. Lockheed Martin, as a key member of the UK’s industrial sector and a company with a good footprint in Scotland, is investing in an apprenticeship scheme covering specialisms such as software development. But simply creating apprenticeships is not the most effective answer to the skills gap. We need to go further.

We need to focus on the underlying issue of a lack of interest among younger students. We need to get them excited about the many possibilities of Stem careers, encouraging core skills like problem solving, planning, organisation and creativity. More than specific technical knowledge, having the ability to think creatively is an essential skill.

To address the skills gap, we need a fundamental overhaul of how our education system equips and encourages our future workforce. Without this culture shift, the skills gap will simply continue, our industry will suffer and the economic wellbeing of the country will deteriorate.

Alastair O’Brien is public services sector director at Lockheed Martin.