GCHQ helps bridge the STEM skills gap

Published: 28 Apr 2017

The demand for employees with skills in STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, including Computing – has been outstripping supply in the UK for decades. GCHQ is introducing a number of innovative schemes to help bridge this gap and ensure the organisation’s own future need for skilled staff is met.

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The UK economy is dependent on people with STEM skills to develop innovative products and services. Likewise, the country’s security depends on the same skills to defend against online threats from cyber criminals, terrorists, hackers, fraudsters and organised criminal gangs.

A 2015 survey by EngineeringUK found 53% of businesses expect challenges in recruiting STEM-skilled staff in the next three years.British intelligence agency GCHQ is one organisation addressing the shortage head-on with a multi-pronged approach.

“We are looking to create a talent pipeline of people with skills, aptitude and curiosity to build technology solutions to interesting, new and often impossible problems,”says a GCHQ spokesperson.

The YouGov survey “Stem Skills Gap Report” asked business and academics how the STEM skills gap should be addressed. It concluded that the skills gap can be mitigated with greater collaboration between academia and industry, and that industry should provide workplace experience to students in STEM subjects.

These aims are at the heart of the schemes GCHQ runs to showcase the rewards of STEM careers to young people and graduates, keep them enthused through later stages of education, and get them ready to join the job market. While for some roles STEM skills are interchangeable, candidates with ‘problem solving’ degrees, like computer science, software subjects, engineering, networks, cyber, maths and physics are particularly in demand, and this is where GCHQ focuses.

Showcasing STEM

They range from CyberFirst Adventurers, a local schools initiative aimed at Year 8 students to encourage them to choose Computing in their Year 9 GCSE options, throug hto the CyberFirst Bursary for students who are studying for a STEM or Social Science Degree.

GCHQ’s Cyber Exposure Summer School offers students with A levels the opportunity to immerse themselves in the world of intelligence, while the Cyber Insiders Summer School is Computer Network Exploitation (CNE) specific and aimed at students studying for a degree in Computer Science, Physics or Maths.

The Student Scheme for Technologists is a summer or year in industry placement for students taking a degree in Computer Science or STEM related subjects, and GCHQ is recruiting apprentices for a two-year programme leading to a Foundation Degree and Diploma.

 “We also have ongoing links with local schools, with staff helping to run maths schemes,” says GCHQ. “Our STEM ambassadors support school science projects and participate in science and skills events around the country, aiming to inspire an interest in STEM subjects amongst young people.”

Sponsoring research

At a more senior level of academia, GCHQ is one of the sponsors of the Academic Centres of Excellence in Cyber Security Research (ACE-CSRs) scheme. It is one of a number of initiatives outlined in the UK Government’s National Cyber Security Strategy ‘Protecting and Promoting the UK in a Digital World’. The Strategy describes how Government is working with academia and industry to make the UK more resilient to cyber-attacks.

“Employers should have closer links with academia and able to influence the direction and shape [of STEM education] more,” says GCHQ. “There needs to be earlier intervention and support with promoting the scope of STEM careers. There’s still a traditionalist view of STEM; people are not driven by challenge and difficulties, and sometimes choose school subjects for ease and preference.”

But what about individuals who have already studied a non-STEM discipline? GCHQ’s two-year Future Accelerated Software Technologists (FAST) scheme is aimed at graduates who have achieved a degree in any subject with the grade of 2:1 or better. Aimed at career starters and changers, it provides a mixture of classroom training and on the job learning.

“We offer the opportunity to obtain a broad understanding and exposure to many of the key disciplines within Software Engineering,” says GCHQ. “Assessments are held periodically, and act as gateways of progression through the scheme.”

GCHQ worked with an industry-leading training provider and an established university to create a Higher apprenticeship that created an entry path to more GCHQ jobs than most ‘normal’ degrees and is developing a new degree apprenticeship in software engineering.

Through its initiatives of apprentice schemes, development schemes and the opportunity to change focus mid-career (STEM conversion), GCHQ expects to see quantifiable results in the next two years.

Beyond education and training, GCHQ is adjusting other aspects of its recruitment to better support individuals from different background looking to move into STEM.

“We have changed our entry criteria, particularly our expectations of prior experience, and created new development schemes for graduates who have the ability and aptitude but not the experience to get an offer in the usual graduate jobs market,” says GCHQ. “We are finding that this approach is broadening the number of potential applicants, and allowing people with real talent to be recruited who we couldn’t in the past.”

Why choose GCHQ?

While the STEM shortage has driven up competition between employers for qualified candidates, GCHQ can offer something different; no matter what role you are employed in you are contributing to protecting the security of the nation.

“We protect the interests and security of the nation, and offer the experience of a full and rewarding career,” says GCHQ. “Candidates can shape their career path and have access to all areas of the business, without being constrained to one profession.”

Given the success of the ongoing programmes, what are the most important things GCHQ believes should be done to maintain a steady flow of STEM skills into the workplace in future.

“Positive encouragement,” says GCHQ. “STEM subjects are too important to allow kids to opt out; we’re seeing a high proportion of drop-out. We need to remove the stigma that science and maths are hard, and make it much more normal that most people continue them further in their academic career. We would also like to see more awareness of the various ways into technical careers, especially apprenticeships, and more encouragement of them.”

If you'd like to find out more, visit GCHQ's Knowledge Hub here.

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