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Initiatives to boost STEM skills in the UK civil service must be bigger and bolder

Published on July 2nd 2021

Skills like problem solving and quantitative analysis are growing in demand across the UK economy, including within the government itself.

While there has long been a view that Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) skills are important to the knowledge economy, recently there has been a renewed focus on recruiting more people with STEM qualifications to work in the public sector. Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser, is pushing to boost numbers of science and engineering graduates within the civil service during his tenure.

People with STEM skills are important to the civil service in a number of ways, including providing analysis, providing deeper understanding of policy issues related to science and technology, offering different lenses for policy problems, and operating as translators between the worlds of policy and science.

However, our recent report on STEM professionals in the UK civil service reveals that the programmes designed to recruit for STEM skills are currently too small to be effective at the scale the UK requires.

Programmes such as the highly competitive Science and Engineering Fast Stream and the Government Office for Science’s Graduate Internship offer excellent development for those who participate, and are important for their symbolic value, but they simply aren’t large enough to boost numbers of science and engineering graduates within the Civil Service.

The Science and Engineering Fast Stream typically takes fewer than 20 candidates each year, while the Government Office for Science Graduate Internship has an annual intake closer to a dozen. However, on any given day there are as many as 1,000 jobs advertised online through the civil service portal. Comparing these annual intakes with the standard recruitment streams, it becomes clear that that any strategy to boost numbers of STEM graduates within the Civil Service must be built into the standard recruitment procedures.

What’s more, we found that it’s difficult to estimate the current number of people working in STEM roles within the UK civil service, as this data is not systematically collected by the government. Most estimates put this value somewhere between 2.2% and 6.8%, though it may be as high as 9% to 13%. But our findings indicate that it is likely that there are fewer people with STEM degrees within in the UK civil service than in other nations such as the United States and South Korea.

Strategies from other countries

To address this, we looked at international examples that could serve as models to the UK civil service to increase its attractiveness to STEM graduates.
Some countries such as Singapore use salary matching to market-competitive rates for STEM professionals. The UK government does not systematically undertake salary matching, though some newer measures are being introduced for small salary increases for specific technical roles, in the same way that London weighting increases salaries for those living within the capital.

Unlike the United States or South Korea, the UK has extremely limited potential to pay by performance within the civil service’s current employment policies. In most departments, bonuses are awarded only in exceptional cases, and at less than 2% of salary. In contrast, in the US civil service, there is a special classification for research and development posts, and agencies pay these employees according to internally agreed performance targets. In Singapore, civil servants are paid bonuses which are partially linked to the nation’s economic performance, and these bonuses can be up to 40% of the annual compensation.

While these approaches would be a drastic departure from the current UK model, there is merit in considering them for highly specialised or technical roles.

In Singapore, government scholarships sponsor study at local and international universities, under agreement that upon graduation, these individuals work for a fixed number of years in the civil service. These are highly regarded – 16 of the 20 permanent secretaries in post in 2009 had previously held these scholarships. While the UK does have a high-quality Fast Stream programme, the lower proportions of STEM graduates entering the civil service suggest that a similar scheme targeted at STEM graduates could be beneficial.

The UK government could also consider strategies for attracting higher-level skills. For example, in South Korea, there are mechanisms to appoint those with Master’s or PhD qualifications into higher entry-level positions within the civil service than those with a Bachelor’s degrees. The lack of such differentiation in entry route and pay scale in the UK civil service has the effect of signalling that these additional qualifications are not valued.

If the UK government is serious about recruiting more people with STEM skills, the first step is developing a better understanding of the current make-up of the Civil Service. But beyond this, it is clear that the UK could benefit from looking at strategies from other countries to boost uptake, as revealed in our report.

For more details and references, please see the full report: STEM professionals in the UK civil service: An international comparative study

The report was prepared for and with the support of the Gatsby Foundation.

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