With student aptitude for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM) essentially flat, the need for such skills continues to grow at an unrelenting pace.
ARN connected with University of Technology Dean of the UTS Business School, Professor Roy Green, to assess Australia’s innovation impasse.
“Some say we have a skills shortage, then others say they have IT skills but can’t get a job - so what’s the truth?”
As the Dean of the UTS Business School at the University of Technology Sydney, Professor Roy Green is well placed to put his finger on the pulse of Australian transformation, as the nation reaches an innovation impasse.
Having worked in universities, business and government in Australia and overseas, Professor Green questions why a growing population is failing to produce the next generation of technology talent.
“Our top graduates and employees in some of our leading technology firms and start-ups are being lured away from Australian shores,” he said.
“They are attracted to Silicon Valley, to Facebook and Google, with $200,000 starting salaries, sign-on bonuses and stock options - it’s a very competitive market.”
Although attempts are underway to prevent students heading for the airport departure lounge, Professor Green said that while creating more graduates appeared a logical course of action, a harsh reality remains.
“IT programs have been slow in the making because universities are dependent on student demand,” he admitted.
“During the mining boom, students moved into mining skills and ICT suffered because of that. Now this has ended we’re seeing student demand shifting again but we are still are facing problems.”
To tackle the issue head-on, Professor Green is unwavering in his belief that the STEM skills shortage should be fought in the battlegrounds of pre-school and primary education, planting the seeds of future development.
“It has to start from day one,” he said. “Previously, English and maths were compulsory teaching yet students can now avoid these subjects throughout their entire education - it’s an extraordinary concept.”
While there’s no opting out from the forces of change, of the total STEM workforce in Australia, 32 per cent are university qualified, leaving 68 per cent Vocational Education and Training (VET) qualified.
“Universities are introducing different schemes to enhance STEM skills but we can only work with what we’ve got,” Professor Green outlined. “The real issue is around how much the country is investing in growing STEM skills within the schooling system.
“University programs can’t be created or enhanced out of nowhere, which leads the industry to the bigger picture around how we create a vibrant skills ecosystem.”
Nestled on the shores of Australia, four underlying causes contribute to the ongoing STEM paradox; a shortage of graduates with soft skills, a lack of qualified technicians, a loss of high-skills workers, and untapped pools of talent.
“Soft skills are crucial,” Professor Green added. “Mastering the technical aspect isn’t the be all and end all to making your way up the ladder.
“But it’s not just about students moving into large corporations, soft skills are also required for graduates to start their own ventures and build businesses.”
As the need for soft skills heighten alongside core STEM competencies, Professor Green said a hardened approach from Government and opposition is required to ensure critical mass going forward, built around a digitally enabled nation.
“The question is how much resources and investment are the political parties prepared to throw at this issue?” he asked. “A little bit here and a little bit there is not enough because global giants are picking the eyes out of our ICT graduate cohort, and we need to act.
“We can’t just sit back and wait for people to arrive from overseas, we have to produce more high quality graduates because the jobs we are currently preparing our students for won’t exist in a few years.”
Specific to UTS, Professor Green is actively encouraging deeper collaboration between businesses and tertiary education organisations to help bridge the STEM skills gap, creating an environment of experience and learning in the workplace.
“We provide career services and internship program to encourage businesses to pick up our students as interns,” he said. “It’s mutually beneficial in that companies receive young hungry staff, while graduates receive exposure to the real world of working.”
Professor Green said UTS continues to “evaluate and assess” its contribution to the national STEM agenda, introducing technology components into programs across other parts of the university.
“We have some very broad degrees across the university and we’re adding technology components to these,” he explained.
“Our business schools are also preparing new programs that incorporate technology for graduates, to ensure that it is more formally and comprehensively recognised.”
As industry opinion reaches fever pitch, and strategies collide and combine in equal measure, one overriding observation remains - innovation may be the future of Australia, but solving the STEM paradox is a job for the present.
This article was originally published in the July issue of ARN magazine.