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HSWE - Candidate expectations

STEM professionals want more from their roles than employers are offering

Apart from attractive salary rates and benefits, candidates continue to want flexibility. But how that looks has changed.

In a candidate-driven market, it's the sought-after professional who holds the cards, so can employers afford not to listen? Amidst the STEM skills gap, businesses need to ask themselves how far they’re willing to go to attract new talent.


of STEM professionals say ‘Continuing to work flexibly’ is a factor that will affect their career


of those responses place it as the top challenge impacting their career


selected 'workforce burnout/increasing work-related stress' as their top challenge

Expectation meets reality: Do employer benefits become burdens?

‘Continuing to work flexibly’ is the top ranked challenge likely to impact STEM professionals’ careers in 2023. 63% of the ‘How the STEM World Evolves’ participants say it is a factor that will affect their career, with 19% of those responses placing it as their top challenge and only 15% choosing workforce burnout/increasing work related stress. Seeing these two factors so close together in the data begs the question of whether there is any causality (Figure 1).

As found in our 2021 ‘How the STEM World Works’ study, flexible working is no longer regarded as an added benefit. And in 2023, more people are working flexibly than not – with 59% of STEM professionals given the flexibility in where they can work from their employer/client. Working from home has become so much of the norm that employers have downgraded offices sizes and now need to manage planned remote and office days to ensure their office numbers can be managed. This is resulting in employees being given fixed times for when they are expected to be in the office, removing the flexibility from flexible working.

If people are asked back to the office at specific times and can’t manage their personal lives in the same way, will this significantly increase the likelihood of workforce burnout? The International Labour Organisation finds that in 2023 flexible working is still a benefit to all, particularly for productivity and work-life balance. However, a disciplined approach is needed to reach this balance, as it becomes easier to blur boundaries. Finding the right harmony is crucial to ensure wellbeing – as discussed further in our 'Concerns over wellbeing rising among STEM professionals' section.

Candidate expectations are redefining what it means to work flexibly

Flexible working does not emerge as a prominent reason for STEM professionals to leave their job. However, it is an important factor when considering future roles for most STEM professionals (Figure 2), especially when it comes to when and where to work highlighting a change in flexible working expectations.

Working from home is standard practice, with over half of STEM professionals already working in this way (Figure 3). So, employers need to adopt new and innovative flexible working models to attract the best talent. Rising concepts such as ‘Workation’ and ‘Work-Life-Blending' offer remote working, great flexibility in hours as well as the ability to work across borders, which is important to STEM professionals (UK 50%, US 57%, Germany only 29%, Netherlands 36%, Japan 18%). The ‘four-day working week’ - where working days are extended but the week is shortened – has also gained traction recently. Although no country has fully adopted this yet, many are experimenting with one or have a short average working week.

President of the US business, Sunny Ackerman, professional portrait photo
"Businesses should heed the opportunity to position themselves as progressive employers by integrating cross-border working policies to attract and retain sought-after skills. Employers with current international teams can inject excitement into roles by investing in remote work." Sunny Ackerman, President -US, SThree

When considering new flexible working concepts, businesses must bear in mind the related legal and organisational implications, especially when dealing with cross-border policies. Flexible working is not only about working in different locations; it can also entail working a different number of hours or days. Given the potential disruption, both business and employee needs must be inspected. All companies have different needs and circumstances making it important to analyse flexible working scenarios on a case-by-case basis with the support of experts.

Upskilling to keep up with the pace of innovation

Progressing by upskilling can have a huge impact on employee satisfaction levels and should not be underestimated. In our 2021 'How the STEM World Works' study, 42% of overall respondents said that career development opportunities will be one of the most important factors when searching for new roles. That view is reinforced this year. STEM professionals surveyed in ‘How the STEM World Evolves’ say they are unwilling to compromise on their opportunities for learning and development.

When speaking about their current role, 52% of respondents say that they don’t think they can progress much further in their career without upskilling in their area of expertise (Figures 4). Contractors especially are concerned about a declining skill set (Figure 5). Most respondents agree they want to work on projects which help them keep up to date in relation to their skills and any advances in technology (70%). This was a greater concern than feeling at risk of losing their job to AI (34%) or pay keeping up with inflation (63%).

The appetite to learn and develop is crucial for STEM professionals to remain competitive with the pace of innovation and development that has happened within the past decade alone, resulting in renewed interest in reskilling. STEM employers who can deliver on these requirements stand a better chance of attracting and retaining key workforce members.

Tom Way Headshot
"When it comes to reskilling your people and getting them on board with interesting projects, it's not just about offering a competitive rate. While that can help attract the right talent, making the project itself captivating is even more crucial." Tom Way, Managing Director – UK, France, Belgium, and Luxembourg, SThree

Why decide if you can have it all? Young STEM professionals on the road to self-fulfillment

Dynamic organisations need the skills of tomorrow, today. Due to the current candidate-driven market, companies need to come up with unique and valuable benefits to position themselves as an attractive employer. But which are the drivers that will attract and retain new talent in 2023? ‘How the STEM World Evolves’ shows that STEM professionals want to work for innovative, supporting and inclusive organisations that align with their personal values (Figure 6).

Headshot of Christophe Zwaenepoel
"Despite the challenging economic climate, employers are willing to maintain competitive rates for STEM professionals. However, simply offering a high salary is not enough to attract top talent. Skilled STEM workers are drawn to companies and projects that excite them and offer opportunities to work with cutting-edge technology. This helps them increase their value over the long term, making them a valuable investment for any employer." Christophe Zwaenepoel , Managing Director - DACH, SThree

This sounds like an unrealistic dream state that candidates are pining for, but to attract top professionals, employers need to take heed. Smaller companies especially are in desperate need of skilled workers, and increasingly must face the reality that other organisations, especially bigger companies, are more attractive and more responsive to meeting the needs of young professionals. Current developments show that sought-after specialists can indeed have it all because they have the choice – a choice that generations before them didn’t have.


‘How the STEM World Evolves’ not only shows that STEM professionals want more from their roles, but also that they are in a strong enough position to demand it. Whether it is a higher salary or rates, enhanced benefits, or a more inclusive work environment with pay transparency, companies need to face the reality of the candidate-driven market. They need to think creatively about offering more attractive benefits in this highly competitive market – or they risk losing the skilled talent they need.

At the heart of this is how STEM professionals now define flexible working, with focus on the when and where, not just working from home. Our data clearly shows that there is not one concept which fits all. Companies must define bespoke solutions that meet regional, team and individual needs to win the race against their competitors and retain top talent. Because when it comes down to it, in a candidate-driven market, it's the sought-after professional who holds the cards and decides for or against a company.

Dive deeper into How the STEM World Evolves

Uncover how the STEM world is changing in our new study How the STEM World Evolves! Discover:

  • How important security is to STEM professionals 
  • What STEM professionals want from their role
  • How purpose is influencing careers
  • How attitudes to wellbeing are evolving
  • What impact the ageing population will have on employees
  • Whether attitudes to AI and Automation are changing


Learn more

Discover the other sections in our study

STEM professionals value career security over a pay rise

STEM professionals value career security over a pay rise

In today’s economic climate, labour market shifts and megatrends are revolutionising the working world and influencing professionals' needs.

Purpose is the key driver in STEM professionals’ careers

Purpose is the key driver in STEM professionals’ careers

Purpose at work has become more important, and intrinsic personal purpose far outweighs organisational extrinsic purpose.

Over a third of STEM professionals are worried about losing their jobs to AI and automation

Over a third of STEM professionals are worried about losing their jobs to AI and automation

How can businesses help STEM professionals create a role-relevant partnership with AI, rather than be automated out of a job?

Concerns over wellbeing rising among STEM professionals

Concerns over wellbeing rising among STEM professionals

An increasing sense of pressure has caused a rise in specialists worrying about wellbeing in the past 12 months. What are the solutions?

Employers are focusing on the wrong demographic to get the most from the ageing workforce

Employers are focusing on the wrong demographic to get the most from the ageing workforce

A generational phenomenon, underpinned by increased life expectancy and decreasing birth rates, is sweeping across global markets.

Summary of findings

Summary of findings

Dive into the attitudes and expectations of STEM professionals as they try and make sense of our rapidly changing working environment.

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