The STEM sell: Why aren’t more graduates applying to teach core subjects?
Graduating in a STEM subject makes you a member of an exclusive club. And you’ve graduated at an interesting time. The UK economy is increasingly reliant on industries that need STEM skills and that represents a great professional opportunity for you.
But we’re also in the middle of a shortage. Both of STEM graduates and the number of STEM teachers. In this post, we explore why whatever path you choose will be a force for good for the country. How STEM graduates can help break the cycle of low engagement with STEM subjects. And we try to answer the biggest question of all: why aren’t more graduates choosing a career in teaching?
A force for good
STEM industries contribute a lot to the UK economy. The numbers don’t lie. Here’s a selection of stats that show the importance of STEM sectors to UK wealth:
£370bn gross value added (GVA) from ‘easily identified’ engineering sectors in the UK economy
£208bn GVA from mathematical sciences research
The UK ICT industry estimated to be worth £58bn each year
Over one million people in the UK (in 2012) employed directly by physics-based businesses
£2.8 billion positive net trade position of the UK pharmaceutical industry[i]
So the bottom line is that you’re awesome! No, really. You’ve achieved a rare and wonderful thing by graduating in a STEM subject. And if you graduated last year, then you’re one of only 87,000 people who did. So props where props is due.
But now the question is: what to do with your new qualifications? Interesting careers in engineering, research or science all beckon. But what about using your knowledge and skills to teach the next generation of maths or physics whiz-kids?
STEM. The facts[MS1]
STEM. The Stats[ii]
The five core STEM degree subjects are:
Engineering and technology
Architecture, building and planning
There were 87,000 STEM graduates in the UK last year.
22,000 women (25%)
65,000 men (75%)
Overall the number of women graduating in STEM subjects increased only slightly in 2016
With great power comes great responsibility
Teaching is a sought after skill. It is a ‘proper’ job and a noble profession. It’s an opportunity use your skills and experience to inspire a whole new generation. And when it comes to STEM subjects it’s a generation that we need to inspire.
You’re a graduate with a smoking hot degree in one of the core subjects. You’re a maths wizard. A computer networking guru. Or a talented engineer. Here’s why you might consider training to become a teacher...
Future-proofing core subject areas
There aren’t enough STEM graduates. And there aren’t enough STEM students at GCSE and A level. This is perhaps the most important reason to consider a role teaching STEM subjects.
Not enough graduates is a problem for industry and for education. Not enough skilled workers to fill existing roles in STEM industries. Not enough to fill the future demand of growing STEM sectors. And certainly not enough to fill the teaching positions we need to build the pipeline of STEM qualified students for the future.
Whether you choose a path in academia or industry, STEM graduates will need to become ambassadors and evangelists. Relentlessly working together to improve the take-up rates in STEM subjects. This is important in the boardroom, certainly. It’s critical in the classroom.
Inspiring a generation
You’ve achieved great things with the academic mastery of your STEM subject. You’re part of the elite. You wield great knowledge and power. What better way to demonstrate your skills than to take your passion into the classroom. To take unbridled enthusiasm for the physical or technological realms and inspire future generations to follow your path? Who knows, perhaps you could single-handedly solve the shortage of students achieving good STEM qualifications...
OK that’s little extreme.
But the point stands. There’s little doubt about the personal rewards that a profession in teaching can unlock. Skills in in leadership and problem solving. Developing communication styles that are second to none.
And then there’s the big one. To get young people excited, energised and enthused about subjects that give them sought after skills. To help develop an expertise that will help build the UK tech, engineering and science sectors. To influence the direction your students take. To dazzle them with the opportunities that await them if they stick with maths, physics, or IT.
Torna Burton, who has an MSc in Chemistry, industrial experience and is now a Chemistry teacher told us
‘I have taught now in two schools, and I can honestly say, there’s nothing more rewarding. Again, it depends on what you’re looking for. For me, it’s all about the Chemistry. And that’s in two ways; being able to convey and pass on knowledge and passion, and about chemistry with the pupils. I have had to relearn my Chemistry which has re-ignited my passion for this fascinating, diverse subject. But I also must rethink almost daily how I approach teaching, in order to appeal, engage and break through to all different types of pupils; from quick learners to those struggling or less enthusiastic. This may mean one day using traditional teaching methods; another day devising an interactive game pupils can do on their phone.
And what’s not to like about creating screaming jelly beans, methane bubbles, fireworks, elephants toothpaste or gold coins?
Teaching keeps you on your toes. Having to keep your knowledge up to date, adjust your teaching techniques and deal with young people is challenging, and you can’t underestimate how tough the job can be. Children will constantly test you with difficult questions and their behaviour. But the rewards are so immense when you see a pupil improve a score, suddenly grasp a concept, or get into their chosen university. You know that you’ve had an actual impact on this person’s life and what can be better than that?’’
Scholarships, bursaries and prestige
Make no mistake. You’re in demand. If you’ve got a good degree (a 2:1 or above) in a relevant STEM subject, you could be eligible for a scholarship. The government awards these to the most gifted trainees in physics, maths, chemistry and computing.
If you’re a real high flier in these subjects, you’ll be able to apply for up to a £30,000 tax-free bursary. Compare that to a maximum £4,000 bursary for history graduates as an indication of how badly they want your expertise.
Your passion for your STEM subject could see you identified as one of the leaders of the future. And give you the chance to become a member of prestigious professional bodies like the Royal Society of Chemistry.
Who says there’s no kudos in teaching?!
Guaranteed incomes, pay scales and career progression
Remember that shortfall in numbers of STEM teachers? That’s your opportunity, right there. To train, to develop your skills, and to rise through the ranks (and the pay grades) as a core subject expert. And even when you first start off you can expect to earn a guaranteed income straight away.
As a newly qualified teacher you’ll begin on a salary of at least £22,467 (or £28,098 in inner London). As you rise up the pay scales, you could earn £115,582 as a Headteacher in inner London.
School, Further, and Higher Education institutions are being given more autonomy to set their own budgets. This gives them the freedom to develop their own pay policies. And it allows them to get out into the market to attract and retain the best teachers. And like any market, they’ll be more likely to pay more for the best.
So your salary links to your performance and expertise, and not how long you’ve been a teacher. That’s opportunity for you to increase your salary faster than ever before.
You can have it all
And it’s not a case of one or the other. If you think that the best thing for your career right now is to seek out some professional experience in industry, then it doesn’t mean you can’t reconsider that later. In fact, having a few years under would be seen as a bonus. Academic qualification + cutting edge industry insight = a potent formula...
There are loads of examples of people who have forged successful careers in industry for decades who suddenly realise that, for whatever reason, there’s an opportunity to retrain as a teacher. Take Corinne Kay, for example. Who retrained after 30 years working for pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline:
“There a definite advantage coming to teaching with a career in science behind you. The knowledge we bring is precious, it adds another dimension. You can teach students that what they’re learning is useful and has been used successfully. I’m not saying it’s easy: it’s very demanding, but you’ll be used to that. The paperwork won’t break your back.”[iii]
A decision made now is not irreversible. Remember: you’re a force for good! You’ll always find opportunities to raise the profile of STEM whatever path you take. In the classroom. Or in the boardroom. Which leads us nicely onto...
Those who can, (don’t want to) teach?
There was a campaign in the noughties aimed at getting more young people into teaching. The slogan went: Those who can, teach. Fast forward to today and the UK is still facing a teacher shortage. It’s a challenge that’s particularly noticeable in the core subject areas of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
The scale of the challenge? Initial Teacher Training (ITT) figures for 2016/17 for STEM subjects make difficult reading. The Department for Education (DfE) wanted to recruit 1,055 trainee physics teachers. It managed 730. That’s a shortfall of 31%. It means the government is missing its targets for trainee science teachers by 22%[iv]
The Walter White dilemma...
But why is that? Well, part of the answer lies in the fact that teaching is hard work. According to one source over 50,00 teachers left the state sector in 2015[v]. Why would you want to waste all that time and expense training only to risk burn out in a classroom? Why not strive to be a leader in your field at the cutting edge of industry instead?
Take Walter White in the TV show Breaking Bad. A chemistry prodigy. A talented scientist forced to suffer the self-perceived shame of becoming a science teacher when his ‘proper’ career collapses. And someone who has resented it ever since.
It demonstrates the ‘low pay, low reward’ perception of teaching that arguably permeates society. That you can earn more money in industry rather than education. That the only way to truly harness your STEM skills and expertise is by getting a ‘proper’ job.
But is this accurate? What’s the case for preferring a career in a commercial private sector environment? (NB. By that we don’t mean ‘doing a Heisenberg’ and building a multimillion illegal drug manufacturing empire...)
As we’ve seen, the UK economy is increasingly focused on research and technology. In the last ten years, there's been a 17% increase in the number of jobs created in the tech sector alone, and the contribution made by UK tech to the economy has grown by a third.[vi]
There’s the achingly cool startups with their trendy offices and entrepreneurial attitudes. There’s the UK ‘Tech Clusters’ where ever increasing numbers of tech outfits establish themselves in close proximity to do business and incubate ideas[vii]. And there’s the science boom with significant levels of investment for innovators like the folks at the National Graphene Institute in Manchester.
Heady, exciting times to be a graduate with a relevant STEM qualification and an idea or two. And they want you to be a teacher?!
Show me the money
Research last year suggested that STEM graduates can earn up to 20% more than their non-STEM peers. That’s a starting salary of £26,023. According to Inside Careers, those of you in software development or engineering could find entry level jobs paying a salary as high as £30,973[viii]. And that’s more than the starting salary of a newly qualified teacher in inner London.
Of course, these figures don’t explain the fact that it’s an extremely competitive graduate market. There’s a lot graduates going after the same jobs (even STEM ones). So, when comparing starting salaries, you’ll need to remember that you’ll be competing against lots of other very qualified candidates.
That said, the UK Commission for Employment & Skills says that 43% of more senior STEM vacancies are hard to fill. This is because there’s a shortage of applicants with the required skills and experience[ix].
STEM skills underpin many of the industries at the forefront of the UK economy and a huge number of sectors depend on them. Almost half (46%) of graduates who work in innovative firms in manufacturing and knowledge-intensive business service industries have a degree in a STEM subject.[x]
And what does that mean for a newly qualified STEM graduate? It means opportunity. There’s lots of positions and not enough people to fill them. Result! You can negotiate your salary harder. You can achieve expert status in your field faster due to reduced competition. And you’ll get promoted more often.
Stopping the cycle
Whatever your choice, as a STEM graduate you’ve already done the hard part by working towards or achieving your degree. And whether you choose a career in teaching or industry you’re able to do something to safeguard the future of STEM sectors.
As a leader in industry you can become an ambassador for your subject matter. Find places on steering groups and committees that push the issue of pay equality into the boardroom. Be a role model to others thinking about pursuing a career in a STEM related industry.
But it seems that it’s the teacher who has the biggest opportunity to effect positive change. Getting ‘em when they’re young. Nurturing talent and overcoming negative and traditional perceptions about ‘normal’ academic and career paths. Finding ways to make maths problems exciting and science experiments things of wonder (and not mundane process) and so helping to inspire more young people to study STEM.
And if you can do that, we’ll be on our way to redressing the balance and building an army of future STEM graduates. A new generation ready and able to take our technology, science and engineering sectors by storm. Or that you inspire so deeply they become awesome teachers like you.
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Studying one of the STEM subjects? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below. Whether you plan to be a STEM start-up whiz kid or the teacher that saves a sector, we’d love to know!
[i] “The UK STEM Education Landscape”; RAE, May 2016
[ii] “Higher Education Statistics 2016”; WISE; 8th February 2016
[iii] “From Industry to Education”; DoE advertisement, undated
[iv] “‘There are just not enough teachers’: sciences struggle to recruit”; the Guardian; 15th September 2015
[v] “Teacher recruitment and retention”; NUT; undated
[vi] “Meet the hottest 50 UK tech startups which are now "scale-ups"; City AM; 3rd November2016
[vii] “32 Identified UK Tech Clusters”; Tech Britain; 2017
[viii] “UK STEM graduates ‘earn nearly 20% more than their peers’”; Inside Careers; 8th July 2016
[ix] “What is the UK doing about its STEM skills shortfall?”; The Telegraph; 28th November 2016
[x] “New report shows STEM workers twice as likely to miss job opportunities due to lack of skills”; www.gov.uk; 10th July 2015
This is intended as a pull out “did you know” style box somewhere in the copy around this point