A recent report by the Australian Industry Group has confirmed that Australian organisations are struggling to recruit employees with appropriate science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills. At a time when the use and impact of information and communication technologies within business is growing exponentially, almost one quarter of prospective employees don’t have the skills required by the employer. It’s a problem that business has been struggling with for over a decade, best addressed through a combination of planning, investment in training and education, and the judicious use of skilled project contractors.
The shortage of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills within the workforce has been the source of growing local disquiet since the closing years of the last century. It was then, as the first of the children of the science-led space age began to approach retirement that the lack of qualified replacement workforce skills began to garner attention.
The issue was raised again recently with the release of Lifting our Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) Skills, a 2013 report from the Australian Industry Group. The study noted that an estimated three quarters of Australia’s fastest growing occupations require STEM skills, yet approximately one quarter of job applicants do not have the necessary skills and the same number lack workplace experience.
The issue is far from unique to Australia. All across the western world, the ageing population and a declining interest in STEM careers are causing concern among governments and industry. How can companies and economies continue to grow if the requisite skills aren’t there to keep the wheels of industry in motion?
To add to the problem, advancements in technology and changes to business practices are raising new challenges and creating demand for new skills. It’s arguable that now, more than ever before, workforce education and training have become ongoing necessities.
A problem with many solutions
It is widely acknowledged that to solve the STEM problem, action will need to be taken on a number of fronts. First and foremost, at a national and state level, we need to encourage more graduates with the right training. To do this, we will need to make STEM careers more attractive. From early childhood on, within our infants and primary schools we need to engage our youngsters in maths and science, just as we already do for literacy.
As students reach move from secondary to tertiary education, we must also find a way of combining learning and training with greater workplace experience, perhaps by expanding our vision of the apprenticeship model, so that our graduates are more experienced, better prepared and more attractive to potential employers.
While some action is already under way, all of the proposed measures will take time and it will be years before we start to see any significant increase in the number of STEM graduates coming through the education system. In the meantime, businesses need a solution now. Therefore, they must plan; they must be prepared to undertake their own initiatives to source the right people and to encourage employees as they build a corporate skills bank.