Kristen Foster-Marks

How businesses can hone STEM skills outside of academia

Kristen Foster-Marks, Senior Software Engineer at Pluralsight Flow looks at how businesses can encourage the honing of STEM skills outside of academia.

STEM efforts are too often associated with traditional education, such as school, college and university education, rather than with the myriad alternative learning approaches that better meet the needs of a rapidly changing technology landscape.

Research has shown that traditional education simply cannot match pace with industry needs in the technology and engineering aspects of STEM. In its most recent data, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport found that in the UK excluding Scotland, over 1 in 5 vacancies within its sectors, including the digital economy, were due to skill shortages, and over 1 in 10 businesses have at least one skills gap. It is more than likely that our education system is not set-up to equip future workers with the skills and capabilities for these types of careers. Learning institutions are notoriously slow to change, meaning that it’s often more valuable to look beyond degrees to gain vital tech skills.

Here are a few ways that I recommend we can encourage the honing of STEM skills outside of academia.

Tech Boot Camps Encourage Immersive Learning
When it comes to fast-paced, immersive technical and engineering skill acquisition, few learning opportunities are as effective as tech-focused boot camps. I have a special appreciation for engineering boot camps because they’re what helped me to break into the tech field.

There are Tech bootcamps geared towards learners of all ages. For example, programs from organisations such as FireTech offer courses in coding and AI, video game design and digital creative arts to kids aged 8-17. However, more advanced tech boot camps have become an industry standard to train the tech workforce. In America, Home Depot launched its in-house tech boot camp to reduce the shortage of qualified tech talent. The curiously titled “OrangeMethod” sought to upskill the company’s tech workforce, and has now become standard practice for incoming technologists. As part of their onboarding, new hires learn the ropes of the full stack of software Home Depot uses, as well as training on UX and product management.

Online Learning Allows Self-Directed STEM Growth
Online learning is perhaps the most readily accessible forum through which to grow STEM skills outside of traditional education. Whether you’re looking for bite-sized tutorials from content creators on YouTube, or to invest in learning and development software for full tech courses, the online learning space is teeming with upskilling opportunities. According to Reuters, digital upskilling has “fast-forwarded” the way that individuals gain tech skills, noting that the pandemic was a major catalyst for increased digital upskilling.

Online learning provides individuals with the flexibility to learn STEM skills at their own pace, around their own schedules, without compromising quality. For upskilling to become a daily habit, it has to fit into your routine seamlessly, and online learning offers that ease of integration.

There is sometimes a tendency to believe that remote learning is a “hands-off” practice. However, modern online learning has evolved to be an incredibly “hands-on” endeavor, with virtual sandboxes, tech-focused learning labs, and instructor-led learning creating a more robust and authentic educational experience. Sandboxes and virtual labs are especially useful for curating tech skills, allowing you to be truly creative in exploring tools and software.

Apprenticeships Provide Unmatched Industry Access
There is no substitute for “real-world” experience, especially when it comes to honing STEM skills. Apprenticeships are relatively new in the tech space, as they were once only thought to be valuable for trade-based careers. However, due to the fast-paced growth of the tech industry, apprenticeships are often a better option for people looking to start a career in tech.

Though apprenticeships are sometimes geared towards early career professionals, they almost always provide a livable wage, making them accessible to any working professional. Companies such as Accenture, Google, and IBM provide top-notch tech apprenticeship programs for aspiring technologists. My team at Pluralsight welcomed an apprentice onto our team earlier this year, and the relationship was mutually beneficial; she gained valuable mentorship and opportunities to learn in an authentic environment, and we as her teammates were incredibly inspired by what she had taught herself to do in order to join an engineering team in the first place.

There’s No “Right” Way to be a STEM Expert
Regardless of what learning pathway suits you best, it’s important to remember that there is never one singular way to learn the STEM skills you need to be successful. Though university degrees have become the “norm” for many pursuing careers in STEM, there are so many other options for learning these skills.

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