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UK will Miss Out on Opportunities Without Greater Investment in Physics Skills

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A report published by the Institute of Physics (IOP) reveals that as we enter a new economic era post-Covid and post-Brexit, recovery and growth in the UK and Ireland economies will be severely limited without greater investment in the development of physics skills.  

Physics skills already support nearly 2m jobs across the UK and Ireland, and employer demand is strong and growing; however, the IOP says that without concerted action the existing shortfall in physics skills is only set to worsen, and this will limit the amount the economies can take advantage of new economic and technological developments in physics-powered industries – such as major project construction, nuclear energy, transport manufacturing, medical, engineering and more – and play important roles in the transition to a net zero world and new green economies. The report notes: “Economic changes – [such as] new methods and materials for sustainable construction, Big Data in analytical work – favour those with knowledge of physics, and those trends are not going to go away.”

The report concludes that because of its crucial role in driving innovation, “strengthening the provision of physics is central to the ambitions to improve economic growth, prosperity and living standards”.

Following the publication, the IOP has called for more investment in specialist physics teachers; ensuring availability of a variety of physics education and training pathways; incentivizing employers to invest in upskilling and reskilling employees, and more (see below).

The research report  

The IOP commissioned labour market analytics firm Emsi Burning Glass to evaluate the jobs market in the context of physics skills focusing on: the scale of the physics-related job market; how the use of physics skills varies across occupations, industries and regions; and levels of employer demand for physics skills at all levels.

Tony McBride, Director of Policy and Public Affairs at the Institute of Physics, says:

 “Physics skills are central to the new industrial landscape and offer routes to productive employment, and varied and rewarding careers for people in every part of the UK and Ireland.

“This report shows clearly that we need more young people to fulfil their potential by doing physics, no matter their background or where they live, we need to level up education by making sure everyone has access to a specialist physics teacher, and we need to skill up more physics-based workers.

“We already know that a shortage of skills has put a brake on the innovation and R&D activities of physics-based businesses. Without investment in the teaching and development of physics skills, the workforce will not keep pace with the demands of transformative new technologies, jeopardising economic recovery and growth and stalling plans to make the UK and Ireland scientific and industrial superpowers. We must take every opportunity to put our economies on a strong footing to compete on the world stage.”

Duncan Brown, VP Global Innovation, Emsi Burning Glass, says:

“Our report demonstrates that physics has a wide variety of applications in the workplace, moving well beyond its explicit role as a scientific discipline into many established and new applications, including major project construction, nuclear energy, transport manufacturing, shipbuilding, medical, engineering, R&D and much more. In addition, we show how physics-trained workers have a variety of transferable skills that give them a wide range of opportunities throughout the labour market.

“The insights and analysis we provide demonstrate clearly that employer demand for physics skills is substantial and growing, yet it also shows that positions are hard to fill – particularly in finding the right mix between physics skills and the range of transferable skills which can bring out their value in the workplace. This means there are important education and training challenges ahead, if we are to see this demand for physics-related skills being met, which is a crucial part of the nation's future economic growth.”

Significant unmet demand for physics skills exists 

The research found that a substantial number of physics-demanding roles at any one time persist and appear hard-to-fill – nearly 9,000 high-duration vacancies in mid-2021, having quickly recovered to pre-pandemic levels. This is impacting employers’ ability to grow and innovate – previous IOP-commissioned research found that in the past five years two-thirds of physics-based businesses suspended or delayed R&D/innovation activities due to skills shortages.

The IOP is calling for action: 

  • Addressing shortages of specialist physics teachers so that everyone has access to high-quality teaching
  • Challenging misconceptions about physics and the jobs it provides access to, which deter some young people
  • Ensuring availability of a variety of physics education and training pathways, as well as complementary transferable and digital skills development
  •  Incentivizing employers to invest in employees’ upskilling and reskilling
  • Ensuring interventions aimed at strengthening provision of physics skills move beyond the level of ‘STEM skills’, given the distinct labour market demand for physics.