From the U.S. to the U.K., a global shortage of workers with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills continues to threaten economic growth and competitive innovation. Last year, in the U.K., the Commission for Employment and Skills found that four in 10 STEM vacancies were hard to fill due to a shortage of applicants. As the economy increasingly relies on digital technologies, the skills to match are in short supply.

Organizations in all industries and of all sizes are desperate for employees with innovative skills to navigate our changing world. However, many organizations lack inclusive opportunities to close skills gaps and unfortunately, this happens many times in STEM. Women account for 39% of the global workforce, yet only one-quarter of them are in STEM jobs. Women are more likely to perceive barriers to entry in the STEM field. Approximately one-half of women in STEM perceive obstacles to gender diversity.

This is damaging not only for employers amid this competitive job market, but also for many women who could find themselves without the skills needed to find work in the future economy. For example, McKinsey predicts that as automation replaces more front-line, manual jobs, as many as 160 million women may need to change careers. That equates to nearly one-quarter of all women employed today.

Employers must act today to ensure women are skilled for the roles of tomorrow. Building a pipeline of STEM talent goes beyond ensuring equal representation in C-suite, but also includes creating a culture of inclusivity and support that gives everyone the opportunity to engage in skills-based training.

Women Are Hungry for STEM Skills

According to a 2021 report by the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society (WFES), over one-third of women not currently in STEM roles are interested in learning new STEM skills. Over three-quarters of women say STEM training will enable them to achieve promotions, move into a new position or simply keep their job. Globally, about one in five women already working in STEM are not offered STEM skills opportunities.

Offering STEM-related training is just one piece of the puzzle. These training opportunities should be meaningful, accessible and attractive — and employees should be aware of their availability. Research indicates that 80% of the current workforce is comprised of deskless workers, a percentage predicted to rise.

Deskless workers (also known as front-line workers) do not work in a designated office space. They are often hourly shift-based workers such as those working on a manufacturing line or front-line health care workers — including many roles disproportionately staffed by women. It can be a challenge ensuring deskless workers are aware of and have accessibility to STEM training opportunities. Mobile learning, hands-on coaching and on-the-job training (OJT) are just a few examples of methodologies that can help deliver skills training in these types of roles.

Upskilling in the Flow of Work

As the WFES report highlights, training challenges are a barrier to women accessing STEM upskilling opportunities. Women cite a lack of time and inflexible schedules as barriers to accessing training. Notably, women also report that they wanted L&D programs tied to day-to-day work. Over one-half of women prefer building skills on the job over other options.

Women workers increasingly want to access learning materials within the flow of their existing hourly-based shift work. The more accessible learning is to employees, the higher are your chances of retaining skilled workers and attracting the best people. It’s crucial, therefore, that L&D leaders ensure that training is available and easily accessible online so all workers— whether on the front-line or in the office — workers can develop new skills on the job.

In a digital world, this can be made easier with L&D technologies within centralized software platforms where employers can easily distribute bite-sized content grounded in real time. Not only that, but such platforms also enable employers to easily and regularly communicate such opportunities with a dispersed workforce to ensure engagement.

Seeing Women in STEM

It’s often said that the more women see other successful women leaders in STEM, the more likely they are to imagine themselves there, too. Role models can encourage and support women to engage in STEM skills. But this can be hard when front-line workers are disconnected from many of their colleagues.

It could be challenging for a worker on the factory floor of a pharma company to connect with what their chief technology officer is doing and find inspiration through their efforts. We must enhance communication between front-line employees and leadership and bridge the gap for young women who may have great potential but do not see the opportunity to go for it.

At the same time, we cannot put STEM skills into restrictive boxes. For example, many women could feel alienated from STEM because they don’t realize that skills in negotiation, sales, creativity etc., are applicable skills. We need to remove this sense of doubt and invest in L&D that focuses on complementary soft skills vital in STEM, such as collaboration, negotiation, communication and teamwork.

Organizations need STEM skills to remain competitive, but beyond that, they also need diverse workforces. By addressing the needs of women to develop crucial STEM skills, organizations can reap the well-known benefits of a diverse and inclusive workforce that is equipped for a digital future.