The world is facing a skills shortage crisis. As we all click and swipe our way into the future there are not enough people with the talent to keep developing and innovating.

I’m talking about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) skills. These have always been important skills, but what happens when the global economy absolutely depends on them and we are not training enough people?

The pace of change is accelerating. Twenty-one years ago the American science historian James Gleick published a book called Faster. It documented how the increasing use of the Internet was speeding up commerce, communications, and life in general. Gleick noted, even last century, that our society was being reshaped by science and technology and the pace of change was accelerating.

Gleick’s vision certainly came true. We now exist on the verge of the fourth industrial revolution. The first industrial revolution harnessed the power of water and steam to mechanise production. The second used electricity to create mass production. The third used Information Technology (IT) to automate production.

Now the fourth is blurring physical, digital, and biological information. Billions of people are already connected by technology, but we are now witnessing new breakthroughs in 5G, Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things, 3D printing, autonomous vehicles, nanotech, biotech, energy storage and quantum computing. Everything is getting faster and even more connected.

Entire sections of some industries are being automated. Trucks are already capable of crossing the USA autonomously and every car manufacturer is testing autonomous vehicles. The ride-hailing company Lyft has been offering autonomous taxis to customers in Las Vegas since the middle of last year. Most of these tests are still fairly limited, but that is mainly because the regulators need to catch up with the technology. Once autonomous vehicles are approved for use what happens to professional drivers? Oxford University economics fellow Dr Daniel Susskind believes that AI is about to replace ‘around half’ of all work leading to a world in which we need to redefine our purpose.

Technologies such as Robotic Process Automation are changing professional jobs by using AI to automate repetitive tasks. Lawyers can ask software ‘robots’ to seek out case precedents. Recruiters can scan thousands of job applications in seconds. Accountants can seek out tax anomalies automatically. These tools are already allowing individual workers to become more efficient and productive - without the mundane and repetitive tasks professional workers can get more valuable work done.

Many people still think that STEM qualifications lead to a job in IT or scientific research. That’s why there is a crisis - everyone now needs these skills. STEM skills, such as coding software, will become increasingly common in other professions that never previously required any knowledge of IT - like the lawyer who needs to understand how to train and refine an RPA system.

The immediate concern for many will be that automation is replacing jobs. However, there are many new jobs being created and existing jobs are adapting as these tools allow workers to be more productive. To my mind, the real concern is that almost all of the new jobs, and the jobs that are adapting to use new tools, require STEM skills. Where will we be in a decade if we don’t dramatically increase the availability of STEM talent?

China has a national policy to be at the forefront of innovation by 2030. How are they doing it? STEM subjects are being taught to primary school pupils. In the US it is predicted that even just 5 years from now there will be over 2 million job vacancies that cannot be filled because the STEM talent is not available. Just imagine the missed opportunities at both a corporate and national level if millions of job vacancies exist because the talent is not out there. What about the risk to national security if important information systems cannot be secured?

Although often presented as a nationalistic problem, this is not just an issue for the US and China. The shortage of STEM talent is a global crisis and is exacerbated by education systems that persist in using an approach to learning that originated in the sixteenth century. Many companies are retraining their existing workers, directing them into STEM roles. This is one part of the answer, but many others are wary of giving their employees skills that make them more attractive to other employers, regardless of how short sighted this may be.

What’s the answer? First it is important to acknowledge that people have been warning of a STEM crisis for many years and yet we still don’t have an answer. Now that professional jobs without a direct connection to IT are requiring STEM skills it should cause a greater sense of alarm and genuine crisis. If government and academia cannot join with the private sector to create a strategy for STEM education and retraining, we will continue to see the growth of social and economic disparity that has plagued the global economy since the 2008 financial crisis.

Our purpose at SThree is to bring skilled people together to build the future. That’s irrespective of peoples’ backgrounds or education routes to becoming experts in their fields. I know how much our clients value the people we find for them and I can see that demand for STEM skills is increasing. What’s critical to me is that these skills are accessible to all as it’s only by bringing diverse groups of talent together that we will be able to avoid the STEM crisis. A shift in mindset is needed across the board, government, academia, industry and community leadership, if we are to adequately prepare for the #futureofwork.