What can you do to progress STEM skills?

The Australian Industry Group report Progressing STEM Skills identifies science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) as the fastest growing area of employment in the economy, with work opportunities growing at 1.5 times the rate of other jobs in recent years. However, Australia does not have the skills required to meet current and future demand and the situation is set to get worse unless urgent action is taken to reverse some worrying trends.

The report’s author, Michael Taylor, Australian Industry Group’s National Policy and Projects Manager, spoke at the recent Inspiring Australia NSW stakeholder briefing held in Sydney on Monday 23rd of March. Overall the Progressing STEM Skills report’s findings show that Australia’s performance in STEM related disciplines is not keeping pace with the needs of the economy. There’s an increasing need for STEM skills in the Australian workforce. However, participation and performance by primary and secondary school students in STEM subjects continues to decline.

“This means that the proportion of the STEM qualified workforce is not growing fast enough to meet the emerging workforce needs of the economy,” said Michael, adding that we do not have a pipeline of suitably qualified people set to enter the future workforce.

For example, the number of year 12 students undertaking intermediate and advance mathematics fell by 34% over the last 18 years. There are fewer students studying chemistry, physics and biology. In addition to these declines in participation rates, our performance in international comparisons is also of concern.

Among the report’s many findings were that the 2011 Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) indicates a stagnation in performance over 16 years. In Year 4 maths, seventeen countries performed better than Australia and 30% of Year 4 maths students are performing at the low international benchmark. And in the latest 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results for maths for 15 year olds, 16 countries performed better than Australia.

However it isn’t only a question of the students’ motivation. With 62% of Year 7-10 maths teachers holding only the minimum teaching requirement, teacher quality is a contributing factor. Additionally, more than one out of three teachers are typically teaching out of field and 23% have no tertiary maths at all.

This problem of low levels of participation in STEM-related areas continues in higher education. Over the 10 years from 2002 to 2012 there was a declining rate of STEM-related course completions from 22% to 16% and the Office of the Chief Scientist has reported that the proportion of tertiary students with first degrees in STEM is only 10.6%. In contrast to Singapore where more than 50% of tertiary degrees are in STEM disciplines, and Western Europe and the United States, Australia is underperforming, with 11 countries ahead in higher education enrolments in STEM.

The low level of industry and university collaboration in Australia adds to the struggle. As it is, Australia ranks last in the OECD for industry and university collaboration on innovation, which obviously affects our performance in STEM.

The Australian Industry Group’s report argues that the need for STEM skills growth is greater today than ever with Australia lagging internationally compared to STEM strong countries.
“Ultimately our overall economy will be much weaker if the workforce is not appropriately STEM qualified, especially in comparison to our major competitors,” said Michael.

So how have we reached this point? The report found that unlike many other comparable countries, Australia still lacks a national STEM skills strategy driven in concert with industry. The lack of national coordination and ad hoc responses from the many stakeholder groups with an interest in STEM policy issues does not help.

The Australian Industry Group is supporting the Chief Scientist’s call for a national STEM skills strategy in line with STEM-strong countries that have developed strategic national policy frameworks with centrally driven and funded programs. Further, the Group is calling for Australia to expand its business – university collaboration to lift STEM participation and has initiated a scoping project a project in this area.

Most importantly, the report says that Australia needs to make a coordinated effort to inspire the best and most talented young people to pursue STEM related career studies.

“But in order to do this, we need to develop a more engaging and integrated school curriculum and increase the numbers of well-qualified and inspirational STEM teachers,” Michael added.
Following Michael’s presentation, Jas Chambers, Executive Committee Chair for Inspiring Australia in NSW, urged everyone who attended the briefing to consider what these findings mean for their own organisations.

Anyone interested in being part of a Working Group to discuss how we might collectively take action on these urgent STEM issues raised should contact Jackie Randles the Manager Inspiring Australia (NSW) by 10 April.

Read the The Australian Industry Group report Progressing STEM Skills

About the author
Lara Till has been working with Inspiring Australia (NSW) as an intern.