Australia urgently needs a national strategy for STEM

In order to address future workforce needs, which will be dependent on skills to interact with advanced technologies, Australia urgently needs a STEM strategy, Dr Marlene Kanga told a CEDA forum on future workforce trends.

Speaking at the ACT Women in the future workforce: impacts, trends and drivers series, World Federation of Engineering Organisations President-Elect Dr Marlene Kanga indicated that research, including CEDA’s Australia’s future workforce?, shows that approximately 40 per cent of current jobs are going to disappear in Australia. These jobs will be replaced by ones that require skills in science, engineering technology and mathematics (STEM) as a result of the increasing use of technology.

Dr Kanga said the jobs which are disappearing are those that involve repetitive tasks – such as checkout workers, bank tellers and airline check-in staff. The jobs that will be in demand will be those that involve creating the machines and telling them what to do, which require STEM skills.

“Australia is one of the few countries in the OECD and in Asia without a strategy for STEM. In fact, over the past 20 years there has been an alarming decline in both the quality and quantity of students studying mathematics and science,” said Dr Kanga.

“By contrast countries in the region, such as Malaysia, embarked on a strategy in 2006, which has resulted in a 10-fold increase in the number of engineers in the last decade. This has also seen a huge increase in both boys and girls studying STEM subjects. The experience in Malaysia is a great example of government policy making an effective change in the country’s workforce for the future.

“Australia is fortunate that it continues to attract record numbers of migrants with STEM skills. During the boom mining years, more than 65,000 engineers came to Australia and more than 50 per cent of engineers in Australia are now are overseas born. However, this may not continue.

“The harsh workplace culture in Australia is another issue that results in continuing losses of women with STEM skills. This is a loss of a limited, precious resource and is a huge cost to the country.

“It is going to be increasingly important to attract and retain a diverse workforce with the crucial STEM skills to keep pace with innovation and technological changes. Changes to workplace culture are going to be critical.”

Dr Kanga talked about her practical, strategic approach for “inclusiveness wellbeing and diversity in engineering workplaces” for changing organisation culture to make them more diverse and inclusive. This roadmap is based on the successes in changing the culture for safety in engineering and technology organisations.

CSIRO Science Director and Deputy Flagship Director Dr Cathy Foley spoke on the current gaps in work-place equality, and how this is impacting Australia’s economy. She said closing the gap between the number of men and women in Australia’s workforce will boost Australia’s GDP by 11 per cent.

Dr Foley highlighted why Australia needs greater female participation in the workforce from an economic perspective both at a national level and an organisational level.

“When more women work, economies grow. So I’m pushing this idea today that Australia is only going to be saved, and the rest of the world is only going to be saved, if we actually get more women working,” she said.

“If we see female participation increase, say to the level of Canada, we will see a growth of $25 billion.

“If we see the flow-on of more women working we will reduce pension costs, we will increase personal savings in households and we will lift tax revenue.

Speaking on the merits of greater female workforce participation at an organisation-level, Dr Foley cited a 2011 Catalyst study examining the gender composition of boards, which found that boards which are 16-40 per cent composed of women are 26 per cent more profitable than those with lower percentages of female board members.

“If your company is going downhill, don’t go and get re-branding or outsource to Bangladesh, you should go out and put more women at the top as you will find your organisation will become more profitable,” she said.

“If you’re going to have successful teams that deliver, you need to be have teams which are diverse.”

To achieve this greater workforce participation, Dr Foley said women need to see more mentors and role models within organisations, and that the change should happen at the board level.

“If we see more women as board directors, you will see the trickle-down effect really fast,” she said.

Telstra Corporation Chief Scientist Dr Hugh Bradlow spoke in-depth on technological disruption, with the message: “You can’t benefit from technological progress without social progress. If you’re stuck in the past with your attitude to (gender) diversity, then you are not going to benefit from the progress technology offers.”

Dr Bradlow said the future workforce will become a collaboration between humans and machines, and machines are going to automate parts of jobs. Within this workforce, most human jobs will be about understanding human need and translating that into a solution for a human problem.
Because of these changes, he believes the future workforce should be “gender agnostic”, as barriers to gender and age come down.

However, Dr Bradlow said “At the end of the day we can have all the technology available, and be at the theoretical point of view that we shouldn’t have to worry about gender in the workforce, but from a cultural view we still have a long way to go.”