Now it’s time for employers in STEM to be flexible

To attract the best, most diverse talent, employers must embrace a flexible approach

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The ability to work flexibly is a must-have for STEM candidates. According to research by Specialist Staffing Group, when asked what factor is most important when searching for new roles, 54% (2,709) of STEM Survey respondents rate flexible working options as second only to pay and benefits.

Flexible working has overtaken pay in the UK and Austria as the most important factor for candidates seeking new roles. A study of employers and employees by Skynova found that almost half said a flexible schedule was more important than their salary. In addition, the World Economic Forum found that 30% of employees would consider looking for another job if asked to return to an office full-time.

Covid-19 drives employees toward flexible working

Demand for flexible working is greater post-Covid, said Almudena Cañibano, Associate Professor in Human Resource Management at ESCP Business School. In tasting flexibility, she says, employees have experienced “more autonomy to balance different aspects of their lives. People want to work in companies they feel trust them and give them autonomy. That's what they associate with flexibility.”

Employers will need to offer flexibility to attract younger hires. “It [flexible working] was important for millennials. It's more important for generation Z,” said Cañibano, the author of Workplace flexibility as a paradoxical phenomenon.

STEM falls behind when advertising flexibility

Yet, employers are still reluctant to promote roles with flexibility, particularly within the STEM field. “Just over one in four job vacancies in STEM advertise flexibility from day one,” said Emma Stewart, co-founder of Timewise, which publishes a flexible jobs index.

"If we want to tackle the skills crisis in this ridiculously tight labour market, then one of the tools in your toolbox is to be explicit that you will offer people flexible working from day one."

Stewart added, “When we started the index, if you wanted to find a good quality job that was flexible, you were fishing in a pool of only 6% of millions of job vacancies." Since the pandemic, that figure has risen to 26%, but there’s still work to be done. “Engineering is one of the worst industries to find a flexible job”, adds Stewart, “with only 14% of roles advertised with flexibility.” Of course, some roles – particularly in engineering and life sciences – can only be done on-site. For these, employers will need to find other ways to deliver flexibility.

“If we want to tackle the skills crisis in this ridiculously tight labor market, then one of the tools in your toolbox is to be explicit that you will offer people flexible working from day one. It's particularly critical in engineering and STEM sectors,” says Stewart.

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Striving for better diversity and inclusion in STEM

Embracing a flexible approach can encourage people to return to STEM. Unfortunately, some 61% of STEM professionals on a career break say the process of attempting to return to work is either “difficult or very difficult, according to The STEM Returners Index. Another 36% of returners say they have felt bias in the recruitment process, a barrier to returning to their career. “Women in particular often don’t return post-maternity,” said Stewart.

Some 61% of STEM professionals on a career break say the process of attempting to return to work is either “difficult or very difficult, according to The STEM Returners Index.

Dr Kerrie Thackray, a senior specialist registrar at Addenbrookes Hospital, did return to work during Covid after a career break where she cared for her five children at home. “Within a couple of days, I led a ward round, and I saw my hands examine a patient. I thought, ‘I wasn’t aware that my hands still knew how to do that. It’s been hard work, but it’s been really rewarding to support patients and colleagues through an incredibly dark and difficult time for the NHS,” said Thackray, a winner of the 2022 Timewise Power List.

“Employers don’t realize how important flexibility is for millions of people. And it’s not just women. It’s anybody with caring responsibilities, anybody with health issues, anybody with disabilities, older workers or just because people want to strike a better integration of work and life,” said Stewart.

Eureka moment for flexible working in STEM

Others say flexible working improves scientific results. “Science is hard work. You need to be in front of the computer or at your lab for hours to get that Eureka moment,” said Cañibano. But, she added, “You might be sitting at your desk at 10 am, and it’s not working out. It might be better to run out or get a coffee in the sun. Flexible working enables you to work when you are productive or when you’re at your best.”

"There’s a paradox here: you get flexibility, which will make you more autonomous, but a lot of people, in STEM particularly, end up working all the time, being constantly available"

Enabling flexible working can help prevent burnout. “One of the characteristics of people working in STEM is that they are demanding, high achievers who always strive for more. So, there’s a paradox here: you get flexibility, which will make you more autonomous, but a lot of people, in STEM particularly, end up working all the time, being constantly available,” said Cañibano.

“In those professions, employers should help them learn how to deal with flexible work because a career is a marathon, not a sprint,” she added.

Flexible skills for tomorrow

But don’t just take our word for it. The World Economic Forum says that by 2025, an aptitude for flexible working will become one of the top 10 job skills sought by tomorrow’s employers, alongside active learning, resilience, and stress tolerance. Not only will many future STEM staff expect a right to flexible working, but the ability to do so successfully will also be evaluated as a professional competence.

Discover more insights for our How the STEM world works research

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