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Solving the STEM Recruitment Challenge for SMEs – 3 Ways to Level the Playing Field.

A shortage of suitably qualified STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)  staff is an issue that many manufacturers grapple with – even more so in the current competitive employment market.  Lacking the right people to develop new products, improve processes or tighten compliance can really hamper a business’s efforts to grow and compete.   The problem is more acutely felt in some sectors than others but it always a tougher problem for SMEs to resolve where their multi-national (MNCs) counterparts have brand recognition, well-developed graduate programmes and deep pockets on their side.

So when I had the opportunity to conduct my own research as part of my recent MBA qualification, I was delighted to dig into this issue a bit further to find ways to level the playing field a little for the kinds of SMEs I know.  I was particularly interested in how graduates from STEM undergraduate courses make the decision around first employment and how SMEs might markets themselves more attractively to them.

STEM Graduate?

First things first, is there such a thing as a ‘STEM Graduate’ profile?  My conclusion is that there is, to a point.  The STEM term itself is extremely broad and could include everyone from actuaries to electrical engineers and medical researchers, so I restricted my look to engineering graduates to make the work as relevant to my sector as I could. 

While there are plenty of differentiators in terms of hobbies etc, many had parents who worked in some kind of STEM role before them.  The elephant in the room here, of course, is that the overwhelming majority of STEM graduates are still male, which is something I come back to later in this article. However, gender aside, the profiling factor that came through most clearly is that Gen Z graduates have a world view quite distinct from their Millennial and Gen X predecessors.

Gen Z is a term used to refer to those born between 1997 to 2012, so would include many of those graduating at the moment.  This is the first generation to have not known life without the internet and smart phone and research has shown that they value flexible, collaborative, non-hierarchical activities. They tend to show an increased interest in diversity, climate change and mental health matters.

1 – Who are you?

The number one issue that my research found is that an average STEM student is simply unaware of prospective SME employers. They know the names of a handful of employers often those who advertise at recruitment fairs, have graduate programmes or work placement arrangements in place. They do their due diligence on the internet, looking at websites and searching for informal reviews from past employees.

Work Placements are arrangements whereby third-level educational institutions release students to the workplaces for blocks of a number of months during their studies.  Many graduates are offered work on the basis of their work placements, so do not actively enter the employment market after graduation.  Employers succeeding with this recruitment pipeline ensure that graduates have a very positive placement experience with good onboarding, training, a good mix of work and a mentor or work buddy assigned to them.  Not only does this dramatically increase the chances of an experienced, partly trained graduate at the end of their studies, but also increases awareness of the business with all the other students in that graduate’s circle.

What can we do?

So this raises the first two areas that SMEs can work on to improve their visibility and ultimately success with gradute recruitment:

  1. Make sure you are included in work placement programmes and work hard to make the placement a success.
  2. Improve your employer brand recognition by attending graduate recruitment fairs and using your website as a showcase for potential employees. All recruitment efforts, especially the website, should stress the points that will resonate most strongly with STEM Graduates:
  • a focus on the variety of tasks and experience available to the candidate;
  • the long-term career paths available in the SME including training opportunities as well as any mentoring or coaching available;
  • the culture of teamwork, collaboration and social connectedness of an SME;
  • the meaning to be derived from making an impact in a smaller organisation;
  • the flexibility in terms of structure;
  • highlight the SMEs links to bigger name customers and suppliers;
  • the SMEs’ commitment to diversity and sustainability policies.

2 – Mom & Pop Count – a Lot!

One of the more surprising findings to come out of my research was that increased influence that parents played in a graduate’s career choice.  For a rebel Gen X Old Fogie like me, it was a revelation to learn that even after three or four years at third level, parental influence plays such a big role in the employment decisions of their children, but it does.   Whether it is because of changed parenting styles, delayed adulthood, the need to live at home for longer, I don’t know but be sure that graduates are paying attention to what their parents are saying.

And what are they saying?  “Take the safe route, little Johnny. XYZ Inc has benefits and a promotional and travel opportunities. It will look great to have that big name on your CV.  They have locations all over the world, everyone knows them.” 

What can an SME do?

My SME heckles get raised and I want to start flying the flag and talk about counting as more than a number at work, flexibility, exposure to every aspect of a business, super-speed innovation, dynamic work environments – no bureaucracy  etc but it is going to take more than me – or your average SMEs best brand recognition programme.  What could really help is if government agencies and third level institutions beat the drum for SMEs more loudly so that parents as well as the graduates know the benefits of SMEs for graduates.

Funding already exists to help SMEs recruit and fund STEM graduates particularly for innovation projects.  Some of these funds come with support to the SME to ensure the necessary project plans are in place and implemented which help all parties stay focussed. This could go further.  For example inn countries like Canada, the government supports SMEs at a deeper level by providing professional Shared HR Services to make sure that SMEs can offer staff as professional an employment experience as possible.

In the meantime, finding ways to reach out to parents through local sponsorships in addition to the employer brand recognition work discussed earlier.

Graduate Programmes are usually the reserve of large organisations where new recruits are taken on board after a competitive process and follow a set training path within the organisation.  However, industry clusters such as ATIM where businesses come together working with government agencies and academia to create initiatives to improve growth and competitiveness in their sector as a whole. Through membership of such a cluster an SME can work towards a collaborative graduate programme – giving graduates a chance to work at a number of companies in a structured framework.

3 – Not just Gen Z, you know?

In an age were life-long learning is an accepted norm, Gen Z are not the only show in town, of course.  Retraining and cross-training initiatives are another avenue worth a look. Initiatives like Springboard now have some STEM conversion qualifications for business graduates (for example).  Apprenticeships, particularly for those already working in a company, are a way of increasing the pool of engineering staff.   

Surely it makes sense to try to attract more women to these industrial SME STEM positions? For female graduates the STEM question needs to be addressed early in secondary school as studies show that the move away begins around in teenagers around fifteen.  Female workplace returnees may have a different agenda and set of priorities. The flexibility available to SMEs in crafting packages to suit the right candidate could be an advantage in attracting the right candidates here.  However, what shape this might take is a research project for another day.

Conclusion

It is probably obvious that this topic still fires me up eighteen months after I first chose it.  Those that have read my other material already know how passionate I am about SMEs but this is not just some random hobbyhorse.  These businesses form the backbone of our economy since 99% of businesses in Ireland are SMEs and they employ 70% of the workforce. They are started by people who often bet the house to get their operations off the ground and persevere through all kinds of challenges with the minimum of resources. These are the businesses that sponsor kids’ sports teams and spot prizes for charity draws, that take kids in for transition year work experience and gave us our summer jobs. Our society needs them to succeed as much as our economy does. These businesses need to grow to survive and that growth comes through innovation. Having the right kind of STEM people to research and develop products and services to allow a business to flourish and to continue to play its part in an economy them.

I had the privilege to speak with fantastic people for my dissertation and I am very grateful for their time, generosity and openness during our interviews. My supervisor, Declan Doran, was a fantastic help all the way through as were all the staff at TUS Athlone who got me and my classmates over the line.  I learned so much from the whole experience.  For anyone interested, this is just the canned version, the full thesis went into more nuance and detail of course and I have all 23734 words of the fully-referenced thesis available for anyone so inclined.

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