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Purpose is the key driver in STEM professionals’ careers

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


of STEM respondents are choosing personal purpose at work as the main influence driving their careers


of STEM professionals would rather work on projects they find personally interesting

In 2021, our ‘How the STEM World Works’ surveyed over 2,500 candidates and found 60% of STEM respondents felt salary/rates were the top priority for their careers. Extrinsic purpose was front of mind. Granted, our latest report, ‘How the STEM World Evolves’ shows that salary/rates and job/contract security still come out on top, preceding purpose (Figure 1).

However, a staggering 81% of STEM respondents are choosing personal purpose at work as the overall main influence driving their careers (Figure 1). And when we dig deeper into the data, we find salary and rates are only more important when confronted with the current reality of the economic climate. Overall, intrinsic purpose-led value has become most important to STEM professionals and businesses need to realise what this means.

STEM professionals are people, not just employees

STEM professionals know their worth - the skills gap is rising and there is a shortage of talent. But attracting this talent is no longer just about offering a competitive salary or rate. More than half (53%) of STEM professionals who responded to our survey said they would rather work with organisations that align with their personal values than earn a higher salary or rate, with just 15% disagreeing. And 51% of STEM professionals would rather work on projects they find personally interesting, compared with 32% of respondents who would rather earn a bigger salary or rate. The consensus is that intrinsic purpose, and personal drivers and values are more important than money.

Sarah Mason
"As an employer of sought-after STEM skills, keeping your employee value proposition aligned to the needs and wants of these professionals is imperative. STEM professionals want to be challenged in their roles to satisfy their need to learn and improve. Doing so keeps them and their skillset relevant." Sarah Mason, CPO, SThree

However, when asked about their needs in the current climate, 56% of STEM professionals are more interested in being well paid than having a job or contract that aligns with their personal values. Even though a sense of personal purpose at work is the main driver, the global recession means sought-after experts are still feeling financially cautious. But when economies correct, employers should be aware that work-driven purpose will begin to take full force as STEM professionals prioritise their personal values and wellbeing.

Purpose is significant in employee welfare

Wellbeing and personal purpose share a relationship, with 11% of STEM professionals stating that they feel a sense of purpose from their job impacts their wellbeing the most and 10% say their wellbeing is mostly impacted by feeling proud of the work they do (Figure 2). While on the face of it these numbers may seem low, overall, these two intrinsic elements impact wellbeing only behind salary and rates, highlighting the importance and impact of living one’s values at work. Discover more about how attitudes around health and wellbeing are changing in STEM professionals in How the STEM World Evolves: Concerns over wellbeing rising among STEM professionals.

Purpose is created through feedback, not just features

An underutilised method of creating intrinsic purpose at work involves creating regular feedback loops. Reward and recognition help develop personal purpose at work by building a stronger connection between STEM professionals and the important work they do. This cultivates a purpose-driven environment they can feel proud and passionate about.

'How the STEM World Evolves’ shows that this is something STEM professionals, particularly permanent employees, want more of. They place high importance on the respect, praise and appreciation received at work, as well as the level of constructive criticism they receive (Figure 3). However, low satisfaction levels indicate there is opportunity here for employers to improve sought-after professionals' sense of purpose at work, helping to attract and retain the talent they need.

Shared values matter

Triggered by the pandemic, flexible working has merged the lines between work and other areas of life which can be read more about ‘How the STEM World Evolves’ section 'STEM professionals want more from their roles than employers are offering'. Arguably, this was the case all along, but traditional working arrangements have historically never allowed for work and life to operate within one sphere. Now, the issues we face within our personal lives, both at home and within society, have become issues of the workplace too.

As we confront some of the greatest environmental, social and economic challenges of the century, STEM professionals not only expect organisations to share similar values, but they also want them to take concrete action. Employer attitudes and approaches to diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) and sustainability such as environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles are gaining traction across the global market, with purpose-driven companies outperforming their counterparts. But how much do STEM professionals care about their employers’ mission and values? Does this add to their sense of purpose at work and is it a factor in their career choices?

Sarah Mason
"If employers are serious about attracting and retaining great STEM skills then they cannot be complacent. They need to act on feedback from their employees, or findings from research like ours, and evaluate where the gaps exist and begin to take steps to fill them. Continuous improvement is the goal; as soon as you stop evolving then you become outmoded and less attractive to prospective professionals." Sarah Mason, CPO, SThree

It’s true that STEM professionals want to work for businesses that act in a way that is good for society at large (59% vs 14%) and want to work for organisations that are committed to having a diverse and inclusive workforce (62% vs 9%). Although, this is more important to permanent professionals (63%) than contractors (50%). The same trend is found in diversity of leadership, with 56% of STEM professionals wanting to work organisations that achieve this. Permanent professionals (57%) consider leadership diversity more than contractors (49%) when thinking about their next role.

However, clients’ and employers’ missions and values, delivery of DE&I and environmental aspirations rank much lower in terms of importance for STEM professionals, compared with personal purpose at work (Figure 4). Personal purpose outweighs organisational purpose, particularly for contractors – a demographic who have quit traditional employment models to leverage purpose-driven decision-making in their next contract.

Wellbeing is also found to be less impacted by extrinsic purpose than intrinsic. STEM professionals ranked their job making a difference to society at large and their job making a difference to an organisation achieving their mission as 9th and 11th out of 15 factors that impact their wellbeing, whereas personal purpose ranked 2nd (Figure 2).

Internal purpose is more important than any external drivers for employees, but employers can’t ignore their role within society anymore as STEM professionals are looking to work with organisations who share their values. To attract talent and retain the necessary sought-after skills, employers need to assess their organisational purpose and strategy in place to achieve this.


STEM professionals are reconsidering what they want from organisations and redefining what they want from their roles. But organisations are still focused on short-term benefits to lure in sought-after professionals. The ever-changing work landscape means some systemic truths need addressing including understanding individuals' need to live their values at work and how this impacts their wellbeing, creating reward and recognition features to better connect employees to their meaningful work and cultivating shared organisational values that matter.

With STEM talent shortages and hiring difficulties reaching an all-time high, it’s clear that purpose-driven work environments need nurturing. Dynamic organisations that want the best talent must meet the evolving needs of sought-after STEM professionals by taking a more personalised approach through regular feedback and recognition, and by creating a shared vision. Gone are the days where purpose at work is derived from a blanket job description and employees are understood by their skillset alone. STEM professionals are people with individual needs which must be heard and addressed, particularly if organisations want to retain their best talent.

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.

STEM professionals want more from their roles than employers are offering

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.

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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