Successful STEM Skills Forum in the Hunter

By Jackie Randles

Around 200 delegates across business, government and education attended RDA Hunter’s STEM skills conference in Newcastle.

A highly successful Leveraging a STEM Workforce conference was held at Newcastle City Hall on Wednesday 13 April. Among keynote speakers were the NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer, Professor Mary O’Kane, and local start up star Chris Sharkey, who joined a range of presenters and around 200 national education, industry and government representatives.

The aim of the conference presented by Regional Development Australia (RDA) Hunter, was to prepare the future Hunter workforce to meet the technology and innovation challenges that are transforming Australia’s economy. Conference organiser Dr Scott Sleap said that unless fundamental changes are made to ensure a stream of STEM qualified people, Australia’s workforce will be unable to meet future needs.

“In this context, we used the Hunter conference to examine how we can accelerate the shift towards a knowledge based economy and prepare Hunter students for the careers of the future.”

Dr Sleap said that the region’s ME Program is leading the way in STEM Education through its provision of iSTEM and interdisciplinary learning frameworks. RDA Hunter CEO, Todd Williams said that economic growth relies on skilled and capable people.

“We know that 75% of the fastest growing occupations require STEM skills and that employment in STEM jobs is projected to grow at almost twice the rate of other occupations,” he said.

“RDA Hunter’s focus is on growing jobs and investing in the areas of employment that will deliver the jobs of tomorrow. Talented people means more entrepreneurship, more economic diversity and our communities are more vibrant.”

A conference highlight was the inspiring presentation by entrepreneur Chris Sharkey, the 29-year old founder of Autopilot, a marketing automation startup taking on MailChimp. Autopilot launched in 2015, immediately signing up about 1,000 businesses, 100 of them as paid customers.

Once a student of Dr Sleap at Maitland High School, Chris shared his experiences transitioning from a Hunter teenager to a successful start up founder, moving from Maitland to San Francisco and back to Sydney, now with a small family in tow.

“When I was a student, Mr Sleap identified and encouraged my programming skills,” said Chris, who started coding as an enthusiastic gamer. A chance meeting with the local founder of the Stayz holiday accommodation website gave him the opportunity to use his coding skills in a business sense. At a very young age, Chris added value to the business and made money doing what he was good at. When Stayz was sold to Fairfax Media, Chris and his wife moved to San Francisco for investment opportunities

“San Francisco has a great culture where people are very interested in collaborating and willing to share information,” he said, adding that most people he met had some kind of digital business on the go. Now back in Sydney, Chris says that the start up culture is flourishing. He is looking to hire and will be seeking people with passion and curiosity and an innate desire to continue learning in their careers.

“Knowledge does not stop. You need to give people opportunity to continue learning on the job,” he said.

In terms of developing STEM skills, Chris sees industry-education partnerships as being critical to helping today’s students develop problem-solving skills. He advocates the value of schools teaching entrepreneurship skills so that students leave schools with some knowledge of how to run a business.

More information about the Leveraging a STEM Workforce conference visit the RDA Hunter website.