Despite the current economic instability, the demand for graduates qualified in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) remains high – so says the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.
According to the department, by 2014 the UK will have around 725,000 jobs, each requiring people with STEM skills. However, six out of ten employers say they are finding difficulty in recruiting STEM-skilled individuals with more than 40 per cent finding that those STEM graduates who they employ lack the right skills.
In response to this growing trend, The Careers in Optics Working Group was set up in a bid to boost the number of quality students applying for Optometry, Dispensing and other allied optical careers. Working in partnership with education communication specialists Words&Pictures. a cutting-edge campaign was developed which, in less than 12 months, has delivered significant results, including winning the 2011 Recruiter Award for Excellence for ‘Innovation in Recruitment’ this month (May 2011).
Professor David Thomson, Associate Dean at City University who chairs the group, said: "Our aim is to raise awareness of optometry and dispensing as career choices so we can recruit bright, well-motivated students from all parts of the country and from all walks of life. The universities are the gatekeepers to the profession and the quality of the students that we recruit ultimately determines the quality of the profession. This is why we’re delighted that this initiative has been embraced by employers, professional bodies, suppliers and the universities and colleges.”
The Working Group, comprising leaders from high street opticians, professional bodies and universities decided to tackle the issue with a new campaign, targeting young students selecting options for GCSE and post-16 examinations. Meanwhile, Words&Pictures, who specialise in youth engagement and communications, recommended a student-centric approach.
"While innovation has been a key theme of this initiative, putting student learning at its heart has been most critical to long-term success. Workshops with engaging learning resources needed to be underpinned by scientific content to maximise transferability of the learning,” says Leah Newby, Head of Education at Words&Pictures.
In autumn 2010, seven schools with outstanding science results in areas where recruitment to the optical profession was found to be more challenging. Research showed the campaign’s most immediate challenge would be to define and raise awareness of what optics is all about.
Innovation in process, format, content and delivery were the key to the success of the recruitment campaign which, the organisers say, has already delivered results.
To inspire young people to behave differently in the future, the workshop had to be "interactive, empowering and relevant”.
The link between optical illusions and 3D movies was the ideal springboard to deliver a memorable workshop, focused on raising aspirations of post-16 students. A high impact 3D film was produced by a professional production company in conjunction with students.
The workshop involved the development of "zones” where students focused on the scientific theory of optics and considered potential career influences through activities based on the daily responsibilities of real-life optometrists and dispensing opticians. Different activities, from group work to individual scientific enquiry, took place in each zone. To boost the workshops’ relevance in schools, tasks were mapped to the National Curriculum. Supported by quirky learning guides and resources, students were urged to "live life in a new dimension”.
Words&Pictures’ staff worked alongside selected "Ambassadors” from across the profession, who provided expert knowledge and encouraged debate among the students. "The Ambassadors showed a real willingness to learn new skills and were often out of their comfort zone,” said Ms Newby.
A innovative aspect of the campaign was the broad spectrum of groups from the profession working together in collaborative ways to achieve a common goal.
Ellen Colquhoun, Head of Marketing and Communications at the College of Optometrists said: "The benefit of establishing a cross-profession working group is enhanced employee engagement and improved public perception.
"The challenges we face impact on the whole sector and so we quickly realised that for the campaign to have a greater impact and be sustainable we needed to have the backing of the entire profession,” she added.
Meanwhile, Louise Iredale, Head of Graduate Recruitment and Development at Specsavers, approved of the approach. "The materials were thoughtfully designed for young people with no prior knowledge of optics, in a way which puts them in control of their learning and their future. Whilst this campaign is innovative and cutting-edge, it has a clear aim – to encourage students to explore a ‘new dimension’ to their careers”.
Students were impressed, with 100% of participants saying they found the workshop "fun and engaging”. The interactive approach was particularly successful. "This is a great way of learning because it’s different, and so students will pay more attention,” said one such student from Burlington Danes Academy based in Hammersmith, London.
Pre-event questionnaires showed that almost three-quarters of students, some as young as 13, were considering career options. Following the workshop, more than half said they would recommend optometry and optics as a career choice, while 97% said they would be interested in having more events like this in their school.
Teachers also endorsed the workshop, with all of them saying it raised the profile of optometry and optics as a career choice. "It’s great for students to experience these real-life situations, advised by people who are passionate about what they do,” said Michael Ribton, Vice Principal at Burlington Danes.
Another benefit for organisations is brand awareness and recall. When schools were re-visited up to eight weeks after the events, 100% of students were able to recall which organisations the ambassadors were from by name. Furthermore, 100% of students thought the main topic of the session was about eye testing and eye health and 79% of students could clearly outline the difference between an Optometrist and Dispensing Optician
Ambassadors were pleased how they engaged with students in the workshops. "Students were having so much fun, we had to drag them away from each zone and move them on to the next!” said Ambassador Karen Sparrow, Education Advisor at the Association of Optometrists.
Meanwhile, Sally Litchfield, Recruitment Manager at Vision Express, agreed. "The workshops are engaging, educational and will definitely raise awareness of the career choices in optics.”
The campaign also succeeded in innovating a new way of working across the profession with senior leaders acknowledging the benefits of a different approach. "I am proud to be associated with this innovative programme and look forward to seeing the long-term impact it will have on the profession," says Richard Edwards, Head of Learning and Development at Boots Opticians.
In addition to their partnership with the Careers in Optics working group, Words&Pictures also work with other STEM-linked organisations including Honda, Procter&Gamble, the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, Boots and Everything Everywhere (the merger between Orange and T-Mobile where the company produces award-winning communications.