The future of Australia’s STEM workforce

4 Minute Read | Author: Amanda Phelan

From data analysis to education, and even keeping our country safe – smart business is backing a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)-focused economy.

“Industry and commerce are hungry for graduates in STEM areas: numeracy is the new currency for graduate employment,” said Professor Tony Dooley, head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, University of Technology, Sydney,

The boom is good for business, and employees.

Graduates in science, technology, engineering and maths roles earn higher salaries in their first jobs than grads who choose other professions, according to recently released research by Korn Ferry Hay Group, which looked at the pay for entry level positions across 20,000 firms in 17 countries.

Now, the CSIRO is helping businesses to keep up-to-date, and has just announced a new initiative for small and medium enterprises (SMEs): “STEM plus business enables SMEs to build on existing successful collaborative projects by providing funding support for the placement of early career researchers from Australia’s research organisations into their business to develop and implement new ideas with commercial potential.”

Meanwhile, Professor Ben Schreer, head of the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University says a STEM smart workforce can save lives and protect our borders.

“At no other point in history has our world experienced a complex set of security challenges to the extent to which it does today,” he says.

“Terrorism, cyber threats, major power shifts, transnational crime and nuclear weapons proliferation make for a very dangerous security environment.”

The university is now running a new Bachelor of Security Studies to supply businesses with STEM smart graduates equipped to cope with this emerging threat.

“Governments and businesses desperately need security analysts with the knowledge, skills and creativity to respond to these dynamic and complex challenges,” says Prof Schreer.

Although Australia has enjoyed over 25 years of steady economic growth, experts believe it’s never too early for STEM learning.

Topaz Conway, chair of Springboard Enterprises Australia, says business sees the STEM focused economy as the “light on the hill that beckons the future of Australia’s economic growth and development.”

“It’s the prosperity of what STEM offers and the transformational change it creates that has everyone so enamoured. The sheep’s back no longer drives Australia’s economy…” Mr Topas wrote in a recent opinion article.

This means business and government are uniting behind a $6 million scheme to introduce these vital subjects to pre-schools.

Early Childhood experts welcome the move.

“About time!” smiles Dr Christine Preston from Sydney University’s Sydney School of Education and Social Work.

“Just because they are young doesn’t mean children are not capable of thinking creatively and solving problems.” 

And official statistics show it’s a worthwhile investment.

According to Federal Government research, 75 per cent of jobs in the fastest-growing industries require workers with STEM skills, as business leaders prepare for how new technologies will transform existing jobs.

Our data-rich age means data is in everything from traffic lights turning green to banking transactions to battlefield dynamics in the defence forces, Prof Dooley says.

UTS recently introduced a new bachelor of science in analytics to keep pace with demand.

“Companies and governments urgently need people with the skills and creativity to understand all this data and explain its meaning and implications so they in turn can make the right decisions. In other words they need analytics experts,” says Prof Dooley.

“It’s also changing the future of work, and not just in obvious ways: for example, much case law is now on line and is searchable using statistical methods. This is going to change how lawyers are educated, and how they work.”

The country’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel agrees, and says the message is clear: business is on the right track with a STEM focus.

“Studying STEM opens up countless job options,” he says.

“We have chemistry graduates running farms and making wines. There are no limits on what a STEM graduate can do, and we shouldn’t impose them.”

However, in his report Science, Technology, Engineering And Mathematics: Australia’s Future, Dr Finkel warns there’s room for improvement.

For example, women make up less than one-fifth of Australians qualified in STEM and continue to be paid less than their male colleagues.

“The pay gap between men and women revealed in this report is significant, it is long-standing and it is unacceptable,” Says Dr Finkel.

“No clever country underserves half its people.”