Businesses must play a central role in tackling the digital skills gap by developing the next generation of STEM students from an early age.

That is the view of Mary Hunter, managing director of digital business services provider Columbus UK.

Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency indicate the number of postgraduates and undergraduates opting to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects has risen modestly in recent years despite a clear need for skills.

Hunter told BusinessCloud that there is a clear need to address the problem at source.

“The number of postgraduate and undergraduate students may be increasing year-on-year, but if children are not engaged and inspired from an early age to pursue scientific and technical interests as a prospective career path, the skills shortage could rise further," she said.

“We need to nurture the next generation of STEM students from an early age – and close collaboration between industry, the education system and even government could hold the answer.

“Businesses have the skills, resources and role models to engage with children, and in turn grow the future UK talent pool of skilled workers. By investing in the next generation, it will be these businesses who reap the rewards in turn.”

Hunter says that community outreach programmes such as Code Clubs can play a key role.

“The recent introduction of Code Clubs and similar extracurricular activities at primary schools across the UK provide an early opportunity to open a route to explore technical fields, and continue to feed that ambition and interest with like-minded individuals, regardless of background,” she said.

“Businesses can play a central role in these activities by investing technology, funding and spare time to supply, teach and speak to students.”

Columbus recently invited a class of ten- and 11-year-olds from Holy Cross school in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire to its Nottingham offices for educational sessions about its industry.

Mary Hunter

“We already have an established relationship with Holy Cross, having donated laptops to the school to help children with their development of ever-important technology skills from an early age,” said Hunter.

“We're actively looking to take this engagement with the local community to the next level – and would encourage other businesses to follow this lead.

“We’ve worked with our customers, such as Weetabix, to engage with children on the subject of STEM disciplines, in a way designed to both excite and inspire.

“Instead of discussing software development through slideshows, Columbus experts were able to walk a class through the journey of a staple food of UK households ‘from field to spoon’.”