In the South West of Ireland, there is a large concentration of global leading STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) firms and demand for talent regionally is at an all-time high across sectors such as Engineering, Manufacturing, Cyber Security, Software Development, and Science. However, despite demand, supply of skilled talent in the region lags behind and the challenges presented by Covid-19 and Brexit have further hindered talent attraction/retention.

STEM South West (STEM-SW) is an industry-led cluster which was initiated in 2019 in response to industries collective talent gap challenge in the region and a “need for a coordinated strategy to promote the region, incorporating the STEM industries within it, as a location in which talent has the opportunity to grow and thrive” (Mike Flannery, Johnson and Johnson). The cluster hosts an annual Industry and Careers Showcase event, targeted at post-primary level students, which aims to inspire and attract a new generation of budding scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians into the talent pipeline by demonstrating the exciting and diverse opportunities that a career in STEM has to offer. As a ‘bottom-up’ initiative, this event is complemented by national policies which aim to increase the number of post-primary students studying STEM subjects by 20% by 2026. 

In 2019, STEM-SW hosted the first of these events in-person, bringing together 60 industry exhibitors and approximately 1,500 attendees including students, teachers, parents, career guidance counsellors and job seekers. The event was hailed as a huge success, and “illustrated the extent to which industry and academia are willing to collaborate to foster a growing skilled STEM workforce into the future” (In Business 2019, p.34-37) 

Image: Students engaging with the industry exhibition stands at the 2019 STEM South West Exhibition

In 2020, plans to host the second iteration of the Industry & Careers EXPO in person were disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic and accompanying restrictions. However, STEM-SW were agile in their response to the challenges posed by the pandemic, and moved online, hosting their annual Industry & Careers EXPO event for the first time virtually. The virtual exhibition was hosted on VFairs, and provided a virtual exhibition hall where attendees, through an avatar, could browse the virtual stalls of over 56 STEM organisations from industry, academia and local government agencies. The exhibitor’s virtual stands offered novel and engaging experiences for attendees, with 1:1 meetings through a chat function, pre-recorded technology demonstrations, downloadable media and resources and a broad range of career opportunities showcased, many of which didn’t exist 10 years ago. 

Image: VFairs Virtual Reception Hall, STEM South West 13/01/2021

Despite the uncertainty of stakeholders on the use of a virtual platform to facilitate an event of this nature, the move to online proved a huge success for STEM-SW, and had a tremendous impact on attendees, with 88% of survey respondents (n=463) indicating that they would be more likely to choose a STEM course in higher education after attending the event. Indeed, by going virtual in 2021, the reach of the event increased by 200% (4,400 attendees) in comparison to the in-person event held in 2019 (1,500 attendees). In fact, removing the barrier of travel not only increased the reach of the event but made the event more accessible to a wider and more diverse audience of attendees from rural areas, and from other regions across Ireland. 

However, the virtual platform did present a number of challenges. One of the concerns highlighted by stakeholders during planning, was ensuring that all companies had strong engagement with attendees throughout, as it was noted that attendees may favour larger familiar companies. To raise engagement, STEM-SW organised a scavenger hunt for attendees which was run across the evening, with prizes on offer for those who found and collected all the virtual tokens hidden in the platform. This drove strong engagement across the entire exhibition hall with between 1,000 and 2,100 attendees engaging with every exhibitor from start-ups to SMEs and MNCs.  

Speaking about the event as how it supports the clusters strategy to support and grow a strong talent pipeline in the region, Dr Yvonne O’Byrne, the programme lead said that “one of the reasons that STEM South West has been successful and the Industry & Careers EXPO could be transferred as a good practice model is because it provides regional stakeholders from across industry, academia and local government with a mechanism that fosters and encourages greater collaboration and connects them with a future talent pipeline in a more joined up and collaborative mechanism.” 

The 2022 Virtual STEM Industry and Careers EXPO will be hosted by STEM South West on April 6th 2022, from 5–9pm. Find out more & register here: