Pandemic a ‘missed opportunity’ to recruit specialists of the future
3 May 2022
Careers in laboratories must be “made more visible” to encourage more young people into the field and support the growth of life sciences, the head of an international laboratory company has said. This remark comes after a major survey of young people in the UK showed that while images of laboratory testing dominated our television screens during the pandemic, lab work is still just as unfamiliar to one in three young people as it was prior to COVID-19.
To mark World Laboratory Day on April 23, Hamburg-based lab products manufacturerStarlab International, which has a base in Milton Keynes, carried out a survey of young people in both the UK and Germany. The results, which highlight a lack of knowledge about laboratory careers, has led to concerns about the “missed opportunities” to recruit specialists of the future, despite global coverage of lab work during the pandemic.
The Starlab survey, which quizzed 1,000 young people aged 16 to 19 in the UK, shows that while many young people believe that lab jobs are ‘meaningful, secure and relevant’, the constant stream of coronavirus-related headlines over the past two years has had virtually no effect on influencing more pupils and school-leavers to consider a lab-based or scientific career.
The survey findings show that despite 65 per cent of respondents saying that the pandemic has made them aware of the importance of laboratory jobs, 28 per cent still have no idea about the profession, with perceptions of working in a laboratory limited to medical and/or technical lab assistant roles.
Starlab CEO Klaus Ambos said: “The pandemic provided the best opportunity and template to educate young people and children about job profiles in the laboratory – but this chance was not used. For the life science sector, these missed opportunities could become an economic problem in the future. To safeguard the life sciences industry, it’s all the more important to take the virtually invisible jobs you can do in a lab and make them more visible. Marking World Laboratory Day on 23 April is a good start.”
The survey also found that while STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects were the topics pupils are most interested in (32 per cent), this interest fails to translate into concrete careers in the life sciences.
The UK government’s Life Sciences Vision, a 10-year plan which was published last year, includes plans to increase the provision of life sciences apprenticeship training.
Starlab, which runs an annual Colours of Science campaign to try to shift perceptions of careers in science, says that routes into laboratory careers should take more prominence.
Klaus Ambos said: “The results of the survey suggest that young people lose their inherent interest in STEM at a certain point during their school days and choose a career based on criteria such as prestige, salary and work/life balance. Youngsters with an aptitude for the sciences and the grades to match are looking for jobs at management consultancies, IT developers or the automotive industry. In other words, BMW rather than biotech. One reason for the lack of young talent coming through seems to be that most people have only a stereotypical idea of what working in a lab entails. The first thing that comes into most people’s heads when they consider lab work is analysing blood and urine at a doctor’s surgery.”
Highlights from the survey included:
26 per cent of young people in the UK now have their sights set on another job because of the pandemic
Their career choice is most influenced by social media, followed by traditional media, and then friends
Right after their own interest for STEM (45 per cent), their teachers are the greatest influencers for STEM subjects in school (14 per cent)
Becoming a lab technician was one of the least popular career choices for respondents when they were growing up.
Starlab’s Colours of Science campaign aims to show that science is so much more than sterile rooms and white coats, and that it is “cool and colourful”. Its mission is to get the younger generation excited about working in the lab and undertaking research.
Denise Fane de Salis, Starlab’s UK Managing Director and Area Head for Northern Europe, said there needs to be a “shake up” of the lab industry to inspire more young people.
She said: “I think there’s still this old-fashioned view of laboratory work so we need to show the world how great it can be to work in a lab, and the difference it can make. Forensic science and other industries get a lot of coverage on television shows – lab work should also be given a focus. What is also interesting about the survey results is that lots of young people think you need really good grades to get into this industry. Laboratories attract people from different backgrounds, who have come through a variety of pathways, so it’s about letting young people know about the different routes that are available. The survey also highlights the influence of social media on young people in the UK so we need to think about how it can be used to reach young people and raise awareness of more role models in science.”