What will the future of work look like for STEM professionals?

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way many of us work forever, but in STEM, not everyone has been affected equally


Woman in the dark wearing perspex goggles with tech overlay on lenses with a blue/yellow hue

The world of work has seen many changes across the globe in recent years and has elevated the importance STEM and professionals working in these sectors. By 2030, the United States will have seen a 24% increase in demand for STEM professionals compared to 2018. That’s the prediction set out by the global management consultancy McKinsey, in its report on the future of work after Covid-19. The speed of that increase in demand is likely to accelerate, it says, because of “the growing need for people who can create, deploy, and maintain new technologies.”

High demand has also helped to keep salaries high throughout the pandemic. UK respondents to a recent survey by the New Scientist of more than 2,400 people across Europe and North America reported an average salary of £43,424 – the highest on record. ONS data showed that at the peak of the UK’s job retention scheme, only 14% of STEM professionals were furloughed, compared to 80% working in hospitality.

High demand is not necessarily a good thing when it comes to wellbeing, however, says Laura Giurge, an Assistant Professor of Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) whose research focuses on how the changing nature of work is affecting wellbeing. “Employees who are highly motivated in their work are more likely to work when they are not expected to, like during weekends and holidays, which can lead to burnout and disengagement at work.

“This means that along with the increasing demand for STEM workers, there also needs to be a significant improvement in working conditions. In part because of the pandemic, employees are looking for jobs and employers that support them in getting the work done as well as having time to pursue meaningful activities outside work, like seeing their friends and family, recharging, or pursuing hobbies. Employers that fail to provide better support for work-life balance will likely struggle to retain or attract talent in the long-run.”

Three trends

McKinsey’s report sets out three trends in the way work is changing that were accelerated by the pandemic: remote work, digitisation, and automation. Each of these is likely to affect different STEM professionals in different ways.

For example, the report states that “20-25% of workers in advanced economies could work remotely 3+ days a week on a long-term basis”. It identifies physical proximity as a newly crucial factor in determining how an industry’s working practices can change. In lab-dependent fields like the life sciences, Covid restrictions were extremely disruptive, while those who work primarily outdoors or can work remotely were able to return to normal relatively quickly. The report also found some examples of work that can be done remotely but is better done in person – onboarding of new employees to establish relationships is a particularly good example of this.

The second trend identified by McKinsey is digitisation, with e-commerce in particular exploding in popularity, driving demand for web development and logistics tech skills. Healthcare is also digitising rapidly, with online doctor consultations driving a booming telemedicine sector.

Led by trends in the ‘last mile’ delivery sector, digitisation has brought with it a trend towards contract work, even in the STEM industries: software testing and development is seeing a growing gig economy emerge. As in other industries, contract work provides increased flexibility, which is in demand.

Training and reskilling

Contractors must also fund their own training and career development – something that is considered increasingly important by people working in STEM as the pace of change in the workplace increases. As the McKinsey report explains, training will be particularly important in enabling workers in jobs for which demand is declining to move into a new career in STEM.

Some businesses, such as Google, are reflecting this by moving towards skills-based hiring, says Giurge. “Recruiters are starting to focus on whether prospective employees have the required skills and competencies rather than credentials. I see this as a positive change in hiring practices because it can help address some of the underlying biases that can lead to unfair discrimination.”

The third trend identified by the McKinsey report is the growth of automation and AI, which has been particularly useful during the pandemic in managing surges in demand in industries like manufacturing. However, even as these technologies displace existing jobs, they are also forecast to create many more new ones. With the right training, this could provide an opportunity for women to break into industries that have historically been dominated by men.

Another sector that is being rapidly reshaped by all three of these trends is that of education, with mixed effects on STEM subjects. In some areas of mathematics, for example, the exam process can be mostly automated, but in others, technology is not yet advanced enough to interpret the merit of more subjective exam answers.

As the world gradually emerges from the pandemic, some changes – like the explosion in remote work for computer-based employees – look like they’re here to stay, while others may prove more short-lived. In these changes, there are opportunities as well as challenges for those working in STEM.

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