Posted on Tuesday 11 December 2018 by Ulster Business

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Supply and demand for STEM roles here is largely out of balance but many of Northern Ireland’s top companies are leading the way to nurture students in this field. Here Emma Deighan looks at the who, what and why of STEM initiatives in the business sector

According to the most recent Skills Barometer report the biggest shortage of skills in Northern Ireland falls within the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) sectors.

The research, compiled by Ulster University for the Department for the Economy (DfE) in 2017, shows an urgency to train future generations in what are the fastest-growing areas of our economy.

In its analysis the report concluded: “The subjects forecast to be predominantly under-supplied are engineering and technology, maths and computer sciences and physical and environmental sciences. It is estimated that the economy will require an additional 400 engineering and technology graduates and a similar number of additional maths and computer science graduates each year. Strong demand for the STEM related subjects is forecast.”

It’s a concern given the growth within those business divisions here.
An influx of international STEM related employers have set up shop here, investing in a skillset that still needs much attention. Meanwhile our homegrown hub of STEM related employers are expanding at a phenomenal rate.

Some of these investments include Lisburn-based firm Camlin’s announcement that it will create 300 new roles in the engineering field thanks to a £28m expansion.

And in earlier in the year, financial services firm, FinTrU revealed it would add a further 600 employees to its team across Belfast and in the North West.

Then there’s the hugely successful sports device firm, STATSports, that is seeking another 237 staff members.

And two years ago Belfast-based global aerospace and defence system manufacturer Thales’ opened up a whole new field here when in it launched a £6m space propulsion facility signalling a whole new area of expertise that would open up to graduates here.

With the future looking bright in terms of employment in these sectors, sirens sound when the Skills Barometer says STEM related subjects have been regularly under-supplied. It described it as a “consistent finding” across several years of research but fortunately activity to level out the supply-demand flow within the STEM world here is by no means passive.

Governmental, third sector organisations and indeed those businesses reliant on that talent pool have been engaging in initiatives to support a deficit in talent.

Clinical diagnostics firm Randox is one such employer. Software development, IT support, engineering, science research and mathematics make up the bulk of its operations and as such it promotes roles within the latter fields through STEM programmes.

Linda Magee, head of human resources at Randox, said: “At Randox there are plenty of opportunities to work across a wide variety of STEM disciplines. Our APEX programme, which offers first year university students a complete career package, includes work experience between first and second year, a paid placement in third year and, finally, a graduate position post-degree.

“Students accepted on to the Randox APEX programme work with, and learn from, the most experienced professionals in the industry, across a range of departments within their discipline.

“They might be assisting our ground-breaking research into tests for cancer, kidney disease and Alzheimer’s, working in our engineering department developing diagnostic technologies, contributing to the output of a busy forensics laboratory, or joining our business development teams as they expand the Randox portfolio across the globe.”

Linda said the firm also encourages “established talent” to come back and join the company through a ‘returners’ programme, a six-week scheme aimed at those who have had a break from the workplace. It includes induction, training and mentoring.

“There are endless opportunities for career progression at Randox – the sky really is the limit,” she said.

Another firm with training high up its agenda is FinTrU, the investment bank services firm, at the Gasworks in Belfast.

In terms of recruitment, FinTrU developed its two-year Graduate Programme with a long-term commitment to providing analysts with support, training and industry qualifications such as Investment Operations Certificates (IOC).

It also offers financial services academies which have resulted in almost 180 jobs for graduates in Belfast. Named Academy X,  this year’s intake welcomed a range of graduates from non-financial backgrounds to allow them to forge a career in the sector.

Founder of the company, Darragh McCarthy, believes such programmes create an “ecosystem” that gives back to the talent pool and economy here. “I see FinTrU as having a social purpose to create high-quality professional employment in Northern Ireland,” he said.

One of the most active firms in nurturing a talent pool in IT is Kainos. Each year the NI digital services giant donates over £120,000 and 1,000 man hours to safeguarding the IT sector’s future.

Kainos’ technology outreach manager Gemma Crothers said: “You can go into schools and they have this tumbleweed idea that if you’re going to work in IT you literally get a PC and type stuff. And we want to change that perception.

“There are so many different areas to IT. And it’s lucrative and that’s the message we’re trying to put across. We are trying to change the way the schools are managed and bring computer science in at a nationwide level and we are lobbying the government for that.

“One of the big areas for us is trying to train teachers on all levels so they have the confidence in the classroom to weave the skills in and give the students the exposure they need so they can chose to follow through.”

Kainos recently announced that it was seeking applications for its ‘Earn as you Learn’ scheme. It’s a funded computing systems degree that also allows students to earn a salary while they study.

Brendan Mooney, Kainos’ chief executive said of the scheme offers students the best of both worlds. He said: “The pace of technological change is faster than ever. So, anyone who can obtain both industry experience and an education at the same time, will have the advantage. They get to apply what they have learned in university and also get a head start in their career.

“At Kainos we pride ourselves on our determination to nurture and invest in the talent of the future and are committed to broadening access and offering different routes to school leavers from different backgrounds.”

In the science field, Craigavon-based global pharmaceutical company Almac Group also works closely with schools and universities to encourage interest in STEM subjects and careers.

Frances Weldon, STEM outreach manager at the firm said Almac believes it has a responsibility to drive interest in the field to “grow a dynamic and innovative economy that benefits all”.

“At Almac we are hugely focused on engaging with the next generation and helping them gain skills that they will need for their future careers. We rely on the talent, skills and expertise of our dedicated employees to drive continued growth and realise our vision to advance human health. We know that to ensure our success in the future we need even more skilled and knowledgeable recruits.”

Among its initiatives are the Sloane McClay and Almac McKervey awards, work shadow placements, apprenticeships and industrial placements for third level students, some of which do not require a science background.

“In the new year, through a partnership with W5, we will launch a £1m project aimed at enhancing STEM knowledge, skills and understanding among school pupils. An interactive exhibition will explore the human body and the diagnosis and treatment of illness as well as telling Almac’s story,” Frances said.

The objective she says is to “inspire a new generation of students to gain skills to help them secure exciting and innovative roles such as those we offer at Almac”.

The latter investments represent just a fraction of STEM activity ongoing here. The wider picture of such initiatives is not just beneficial to STEM businesses but the economy as a whole here.

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