Are universities developing the STEM skills employers want?

Much attention has been given to Australia’s skills shortage and the lack of qualified graduates available to work in some areas of the workforce, particularly in the fields of technology and engineering. To identify exactly what skills employers are looking for, and whether Australia’s current educational system is meeting current and future demand, the Office of the Chief Scientist has released an Occasional Paper that surveys employer attitudes to STEM qualified employees.

While 15% of Australia’s working age population has a STEM qualification (Certificate III or above), the number of people in positions requiring STEM qualifications grew 1.5 times faster than all other occupation groups between 2006 and 2011. So is Australia developing an appropriately skilled STEM workforce ready to meet the complex challenges of the future economy?

STEM skills in the workforce: what do employers really want? highlights a mismatch between the skills employers want and those of job applicants. The paper’s findings are intended to help improve how STEM subjects are taught at school and at university and inform future study choices and career decisions by young people.

The paper provides useful insight into what attributes employers report needing from STEM graduates. It asks whether employers are currently able to recruit workers with the STEM skills they require and to what extent they are satisfied with education providers’ ability to train work-ready graduates.

Drawing on research commissioned by Deloitte Access Economics last year, among the paper’s key findings are that:

  • 384 of 466 employers surveyed agree that people with STEM qualifications are valuable to the workplace, even when their major field of study is not a prerequisite for their role.
  • STEM employees are nominated as among the most innovative by 345 of 486 employers.
  • Employers experience difficulty in hiring. Of 356 employers, 144 reported difficulty filling STEM technician and trades worker roles and 135 of 429 had difficulty recruiting STEM graduates.
  • Many employers are not satisfied with their engagement with post-secondary education institutions.

Regarding quality, many employers report receiving applications from candidates with unsatisfactory skills such as a lack of business understanding (101 of 280); a lack of practical experience and lab skills (92 of 280); a lack of general workplace experience (98 of 280); or from people with qualifications inappropriate for their business needs (72 of 280). These issues are of particular concern to the Professional and Scientific Services; Manufacturing; Information Media and Telecommunications; and Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing sectors.

On a more positive note, 384 of the 466 employers surveyed agree that people with STEM qualifications are valuable to their business, even in positions where the employee’s qualification (major field of study) is not a prerequisite for that role and 345 nominated these staff as among their most innovative.While the report’s authors call for greater effort to be made to minimise the discrepancy between graduate skills and those required by industry, they do not make any recommendations about how this should be done. These issues will no doubt continue to be debated by all those with an interest in STEM.

STEM skills in the workforce: what do employers really want? is the ninth in the Occasional Paper Series from the Office of the Chief Scientist. It can be downloaded from the Chief Scientist’s website.

Download a copy of the Deloitte Access report (PDF)