Growing Australia's STEM skilled workforce is a national priority, experts said at a recent Ai Group webinar. 

And it requires strategic thinking and action, rather than simply “admiring the problem”, they added.  

Only one in 10 women is working in a STEM industry five years after gaining a STEM degree, those who attended the webinar heard. 

“STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) spans all sorts of jobs and careers and aspects of life and is equally as exciting as it is daunting,” Ai Group Centre for Education and Training Executive Director Megan Lilly said. 

“How do we build the pipeline of skilled workers and what value can be added?  

“We need to dig deep into our educational training system, particularly down to primary and secondary education. There are also issues around gender and other diversity factors. 

“To build the pipeline, we need to get past admiring the problem and start focusing on strategies in the way ahead.” 

Poorly understood 

“We talk about STEM a lot, but it’s poorly understood by many people,” Australia’s Women in STEM Ambassador Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith said. 

“If we think about STEM as pathways to scientific research and academia, we're looking at it all wrong. 

“It’s not about churning out more scientists; it's about developing all the skills we need in the workforce and throughout our lives — not just in schools, colleges and universities but throughout our careers.” 

People need to know It’s not just for “the smart people”, Julia O'Callaghan, Director of University Engagement / Cooperative Research Centres Programmes, DefendTex, added. 

“It's a skill set that is open to everybody,” she said. 

“We need to promote STEM engagement right from day one of an educational journey.” 

Honours-year aerospace engineering student and Nova Systems employee Gabrielle Annese admitted she had thought STEM would be complicated and difficult.  

“Entering into the field, I was a little concerned about how difficult it would be, but I’m glad I wasn’t deterred,” she said. 

“I’m loving the problem-solving aspect of it.” 

Relevance of maths in our high-tech economy 

The language of mathematics is the basis for most STEM disciplines, Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) Director Tim Marchant said. 

“So, it's important as a country — in terms of developing our STEM skills — that we remember those fundamental mathematical skills, which we want children to develop from primary school,” he added. 

“Roles involving data, science, analytics, logistics, financial trading, optimisation and so forth are all very mathematical in nature, and the demand for those people in the workforce — people with those skill sets — is growing enormously. 

“It's to do with the changes in our high-tech economy.” 

Addressing the gender imbalance 

About 35 to 40 per cent of female students undertake the highest level of mathematics. 

“That's a key pipeline issue because it affects the proportion of females entering these wonderful STEM jobs we have,” Prof Marchant said. 

“How do we make that more balanced? 

“There’s another issue of declining participation rates in those high-level maths subjects; they've been dropping for quite a while. 

“Schools could do more to encourage kids — particularly girls and other underrepresented groups — to continue with higher level mathematics and science subjects needed for STEM careers so they can progress into the great careers we have.

“The private sector also has a bigger role to play, in terms of school activities and programs that grow an understanding of STEM careers and study pathways.”  

Hiring challenges 

Trying to hire people with STEM skills is incredibly challenging, Prof Harvey-Smith said. 

“Gender and other forms of inequity are some of the key drivers of skill shortages in Australia,” she added. 

“STEM is driving that — it’s happening in IT and in engineering and once women are in these industries, they are more likely to drop out.  

“We've got to prevent this from happening because it's such a waste of the human potential capital and the great skills and attributes that people bring to the workplace.” 

The struggle is real for science and engineering firm DefendTex, says Ms O’Callaghan. 

“When it comes to applying for a position, we would be lucky to have one female applicant,” she said. 

“I also sit on a number of university boards, and the struggle still exists at the education stage — from student uptake for STEM courses to graduating.  

“How do we get the applicant numbers up and the qualified people coming through?” 

New technologies bring further hiring challenges. 

“We need to build a workforce capable of tackling the new technologies that come along and using those technologies to create value while avoiding cyber and data storage risks,” Prof Harvey-Smith said. 

“A lot of businesses and boards are thinking about this, but we've all got to tackle this problem.  

“People in industry have a great deal of ability to influence their own businesses and business practices.” 

Collaboration is key  

“We're standing on the cusp of this very exciting moment in human history where, across the next couple of years in particular, we're going to see this rapid acceleration of major advances in science and technology,” Science and Technology Australia CEO Misha Schubert said. 

“That’s really exciting, but it also comes with an imperative for Australia.  

“We need to double down and deepen our expert skills base in those key capabilities across a raft of areas in science and tech. 

“Generative AI has been a topic of hot conversation and how that might transform every business, workplace and device we carry around in our pockets or in our bags. 

“For Australians to stay at the forefront of the development of those capabilities to make sure our industry, employers and workforce don't miss out on opportunities, we’re going to need to pull together across industry, research and government to ensure we've got the capabilities we need for that next part of history.” 

Work-integrated learning 

Work-integrated learning (WIL) can take many forms: internships, cadetships and apprenticeships; paid or unpaid.  

“Undergraduate programs that allow students to gain credit towards their degree are often unpaid which may suit smaller businesses that can't or don't think they can afford WIL engagement,” Ms O’Callaghan said. 

“It allows these businesses to build that pipeline of skilled workers at a very early stage and all the way through to a fully paid internship. 

“It's those hard yards you put in for the student in their growing phase that really supports them in becoming a more confident professional.” 

Prof Harvey-Smith agrees. 

“Industry has to be involved in creating pipelines — partnerships with education — to provide those learning experiences,” she said. 

“If you don't roll your sleeves up and get involved, it's not just going to come to you.” 

Ms Annese, who established her career at Nova with an internship, said the role wasn't strictly engineering-related, but it gave her the opportunity to interact with graduates and engineers and to build networks.  

“It was a great experience to be able to apply the problem-solving skills I gained at university to a real-world project I could take responsibility for,” she said. 

“I was fortunate to have a great supervisor, who mentored me and gave me opportunities that pushed me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to experience those in a supportive and nurturing environment. 

“It gave me an insight into some of the challenges young engineers face and how to overcome them. I found that to be invaluable.”

Individualising opportunities for students is important, Ms O’Callaghan said. 

“I certainly begin with exploring an interest a student has, finding out about them as a person and where they'd like their career to go and tailoring an internship program to that individual.” 

DefendTex recently worked with Ai Group on an internship program. 

“All the hard work was done for us,” Ms O’Callaghan said. 

“Students applied directly to Ai Group, but the shortlisting process which involved interviews was a collaborative effort between ourselves and Ai Group. 

“This sort of partnership is great for organisations not quite sure how to approach the process of building a pipeline for WIL.” 

Practical help 

Women in Stem Ambassador, among other organisations, has developed free tools to give executives and management teams practical support to improve the retention and progression of women and other underrepresented and underutilised people in their workforce. 

Workplace Gender Equality Agency, the Diversity Council of Australia and Safe Work Australia also offer free resources. 

Science and Technology Australia gives its members access to professional societies in the STEM disciplines that nurture student talent. 

AMSI received a Women in STEM and Entrepreneurship (WISE) grant from the Australian Government this year to help facilitate and subsidise the placement of female STEM PhD students into industry internships.  

“It’s a great opportunity for companies to increase their high-level STEM workforce at the PhD level and the number of female STEM professionals in their companies,” Prof Marchant said. 

Finally, the Women in STEM Decadel Plan includes 10 case studies highlighting specific actions businesses have taken to help increase their ability to hire women and other people not normally hired by their business.  

“Industry really needs to work hard on this,” Prof Harvey-Smith said. 

“Businesses are where women are actually working so executives and management teams need to get strategic and locate and act upon these excellent tools and resources.” 

Save the date: Ai Group Centre for Education and Training's next webinar, Universities Accord: implications for industry, will be held on Thursday, August 24, 11am-noon AEDT.

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Wendy Larter

Wendy Larter is Ai Group's Communications Manager. She has more than 20 years’ experience as a reporter, features writer, contributor and sub-editor for newspapers and magazines including The Courier-Mail in Brisbane and Metro, News of the World, The Times and Elle in the UK.