Science, technology, engineering and maths – we hear a lot of rhetoric on a daily basis about the importance of STEM education and how suitably qualified people can help nations build a prosperous future. Although the demand for employees with STEM skills is on the rise, the support and infrastructure to increase their numbers is missing.
Jobs requiring STEM skills grew at about 1.5 times the rate of other jobs in recent years – 14 per cent compared to 9 per cent between 2006 and 2011, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. About 18% of the Australian workforce has STEM qualifications, with design, engineering, science, transport professionals and ICT professionals being some of the fastest growing occupations. Despite this need, Australia is being left behind. The country’s performance internationally lags behind other countries with comparable economies that are improving their provision, participation and performance at a rapid rate.
Nearly 44 per cent of Australian workplaces that require STEM skills have trouble recruiting qualified technicians and trade workers, according to research institute the Australian Industry Group (AI). The kink in the supply line starts early, as only 16 per cent of high school students pursue degrees in STEM disciplines.
Australia is one of a few Westernised countries that does not mandate science or maths after Year 10 for graduation, which might be the reason why students consistently fall behind in international rankings. One study of New South Wales high school students found that in 2014, 5.9 per cent of male students and 14.6 per cent of female students graduated with no maths or science education at all.
The trend continues through tertiary education, and students pursuing degrees in fields related to STEM are woefully underprepared for their course work. Emphasis is usually placed on the knowledge and digital economies and what the STEM skills shortage means for these industries, but attention also needs to be paid to industries such as mining that rely on trade workers or technicians. Participation is low in the VET sector in all STEM areas except engineering – in fact, the largest area of STEM skill shortages identified by employers occurs among technicians and trade workers.
Another major concern for STEM fields is the lack of diversity, particularly gender diversity. Issues with recruiting more women into STEM fields feel like Catch 22: many women don’t enter these industries because they don’t recognise themselves in the work.
Studies have emerged recently that shine a light on the subtle ways women are discouraged from taking, say, a computer science class. One, from the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, found that when classrooms moved away from appearing like stereotypical science or maths classrooms, the number of girls expressing interest in taking a computer science class jumped from 13 per cent to 35 per cent as they felt more like they belonged. The same study found that showing diverse STEM role models has a positive impact on the numbers of women and girls engaging with STEM fields.
STEM programs can be promoted to male and female students in different ways. Studies that looked at what motivates male and female students found that programs that emphasised interaction between students had an impact on boys; an understanding of the processes involved in the profession and how they relate to career decisions had a greater impact on girls. Communicating the why of projects and the difference an individual can make can be a powerful student motivator.
What a STEM educated population can offer employers doesn’t stop at the left-brain ‘analytics over creativity’ logic: the Office of the Chief Scientist has highlighted that over 70 per cent of employers considered their STEM staff as among their most innovative, and 82 per cent agreed that employees with STEM skills are valuable to the workforce.
It might seem that promotion and support of STEM fields is an education or government problem, but business involvement is crucial to the equation. Australia has the lowest level of business to research collaboration among comparator countries. Australia ranks 32nd out of 33 OECD countries for SMEs and last for large enterprises – this is about 4 per cent of large firms. This compares, for example, with Sweden (ranked 5th) where the figure is 50 per cent of large firms and the UK (ranked 19th) where it is about 30 per cent.
An AI survey of 400 Australian businesses found that there are some effective ways organisations can promote STEM skills and ameliorate the recruitment problem:
- engage with schools to motivate students about STEM
- provide those interested in entering STEM fields opportunities for work placements, work experience and internships
- develop business-related STEM courses with higher education
- work to dispel stereotypes surrounding STEM careers and those who work in these industries
STEM qualified workers extend beyond the stereotypes of the lab rats or computer geeks. Office managers can be STEM workers, designers can be STEM workers, even hospitality, retail and service industry employees can be STEM workers. Forty-five per cent of employers expect their workforce requirements for STEM-qualified employees will increase over the next five to 10 years. In this case, investing in STEM education and training has huge returns for Australian businesses.