Think the skills crisis is something new? Think again. As far back as the 1890s, Britain was spooked by 'Made in Germany' and 'American Invasion' scares as industrial and economic output from our rivals grew. Politicians then, and historians now, point to the importance of science education in Germany, and the lack of it in Britain, as a key factor in our relative decline.

Fast-forward to 2015, and the troubled relationship between industry and education continues. Only the geography has changed: now it’s ‘Made in China’ that is the concern.

Hence the concerted focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. The latest government policy paper on the subject tells us that: “Science and research are major contributors to the prosperity of the UK. For our prosperity to continue, the government believes we need high levels of skills in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), and citizens that value them.”

In November 2014, Nicky Morgan, the secretary of state for education, pointed out the value of a STEM education for individuals: “The subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock the door to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects.”

Since then, one of the more eye-catching experiments run by her department have been the exchange schemes for teachers in Britain and China as we attempt to learn from Shanghai’s PISA table-topping techniques.

All this is very positive. For years, businesses across the country have been complaining about a lack of focus on computing, science and engineering within schools – and the significant skills crisis that has resulted. Even though STEM graduates have the potential to earn some of the highest starting salaries, employers are finding it difficult to recruit skilled staff. We are living in the digital age and everyone needs digital skills to navigate it.

But that’s not the whole story. Dr Yong Zhao, professor and director of the institute for global education at the University of Oregon points out in his book, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: “The Chinese national educational system … is incapable of supporting individual strengths, cultivating a diversity of talents, and fostering the capacity and confidence to create. China… has produced the world’s best test scores at the cost of diverse, creative, and innovative talents.”

He also points out that hundreds of thousands of Chinese students are forced to come to the UK or the US to learn “outside-the-box” creativity. And, according to the research cited in his book, only ten per cent of Chinese college graduates are deemed employable by multinational businesses – because they lack that creative spark.

So who’s right? Certainly we need to be promoting and encouraging the development of the very necessary STEM skills that both individual businesses and the economy as a whole needs. But we shouldn’t condemn arts and humanities education to second-class status. What we need is STEAM – science, technology, engineering, arts and maths. Here’s why:

  1. Every business needs a diverse array of skills, even the biggest and most successful technology firms. Steve Jobs’ "spiritual partner” at Apple Inc.? Not a technologist, but Jony Ive, chief design officer, and the man responsible for a design ethic that helped push Apple out of its niche markets and to the top of the NASDAQ. Even companies that are less dependent on aesthetics need critical thinking, problem solving, communicating, analytical, and people engagement abilities as well as their R&D, manufacturing and technology skills.
  2. The economy benefits from creative industries. Worth £76.9 billion per year to the UK economy in 2013, the creative industries grew by almost ten per cent that year – three times that of wider UK economy and higher than any other industry. They also accounted for 7 million jobs in 2013 – 5.6 per cent of UK jobs. Many of those jobs are technicians and engineers – the industry is a perfect example of where art and science work together.
  3. Society needs people skills more than ever, as the pace of technological change gets ever faster. As scientific advances penetrate almost every aspect of our lives, making sense of it all is not just about bits and bytes – there’s the human context too. There are profound implications to the way we interact with technology, our environment and each other, and we need to make sure we’ve got every angle covered.
It's imperative to the UK's continued economic success that we encourage students to develop as many skills as possible. The danger we now face is that by focusing too much attention on STEM subjects, we overlook the arts and set ourselves up for a different kind of skills shortage in the future. And that’s a problem. After all, those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.

By Chris Bartlett, Chairman at GCS Recruitment