Where once recognised as a conversation of moral integrity, based around the need to collectively do more as an industry, the STEM skills shortage of today has now surpassed the whimsical endeavours of the few, fast becoming a critical work issue in Australia.
ARN sat down with MOQdigital CEO, Nicki Page, to discuss how to educate a nation.
As the issue of Australia’s long-running skills shortage lumbers into a new government term, heightening the need for answers as the crisis deepens, solace is being found over 14,000km from home.
Away from the hustle and bustle of daily Sydney life, in the Haifa District of northern Israel, the city of Hadera is playing host to a slew of worried trade missions, as technology influencers from around the world unite in the name of progression.
In accompanying the recent local contingent to the Middle East, MOQdigital CEO, Nicki Page, believes Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) inspiration can be found outside of Australia, on the shores of the Israeli Mediterranean Coastal Plain.
“We can learn a lot from Israel,” Page said. “Australia is unquestionably facing a STEM skills shortage but it’s not just limited to our country, it’s a global challenge.
“The rate of change and speed of technological innovation is phenomenal meaning it’s impossible to keep up, even for the existing skilled workforce because the digital economy is showing no signs of slowing down.”
Nestled quietly in the sleepy neighbourhood of Givat Olga, an underprivileged suburb of 12,000 people, Israel’s National Museum of Science, Planning and Technology, Technoda, represents the breeding ground for the next generation of technological pioneers, shaping the future of the world’s most prominent “start-up nation”.
With a vision of promoting academic excellence in Israelis from all backgrounds, Technoda is built on the principles of education, inspiring the leaders of tomorrow through high-quality enrichment classes and after-school activities.
In attracting over 30,000 children annually from every background, ethnic group, religion and lifestyle in Israel, Technoda houses over 100 teachers and facilitators, as a beacon of technological prosperity for the country.
“Technoda is a leader in the field of science and technology education, offering advanced laboratory facilities and highly qualified STEM staff,” Page said.
“It was a standout part of my visit as it also provides significant development and provision of social programs for children from disadvantaged and immigrant families.
“We have similarly incredible education institutes for children in Australia but we don’t hear enough about them. We have to prepare for the future by investing in human capital from the grass roots - our children.”
Specific to local interests, the art of future-proofing Australia’s workforce by growing skills in STEM competencies remains fraught with complexity, as the need to foster a nation of innovators reaches a level of critical importance.
Across the country, 44 per cent or 5.1 million current Australian jobs remain at risk from digital disruption within the next 20 years, as outlined during a recent PwC report on STEM subjects.
Delving deeper, findings show that 75 per cent of the fast growing occupations require such skills in Australia, with the economic benefit of switching just 127,000 workers to STEM roles forecast to create $57.4 billion net present value over 20 years - the size of the country’s declining car and parts manufacturing industry.
As the issue flows through all aspects of the Australian channel, businesses can initiate action by driving change through the education system, promoting careers in STEM subjects and working with policy makers to ensure infrastructure is established to up-skill the workforce of the future.
“Technology should be embedded into the curriculum across all areas,” Page said. “A large part of solving this challenge is around how teachers are trained to teach. The degree that a teacher obtains does not force the implementation of technology in the classroom at this stage.
“Yet changing this approach isn’t simple either as technology costs money and the teaching workforce is large. Many teachers have processes and methods and that is difficult to change.”
Driven during the Premiership of Kevin Rudd in late 2008, technology has trickled into schools during the past decade, with the Digital Education Revolution program focusing on changing education and better preparing students to participate in the digital economy and workforce.
But following a string of short timeframe deliveries, Page said most schools and educational authorities have struggled to maximise the usage of the available technologies, with the initiative lacking focus and direction.
When Australian Education Ministers signed up to the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians in 2008 however, it identified literacy and numeracy and knowledge of key disciplines as the cornerstone of schooling for young Australians.
Hence the National STEM School Education Strategy, which recognises that schooling should support the development of skills in cross-disciplinary, critical and creative thinking, problem-solving and digital technologies, which are essential in all 21st Century occupations.
“Whether it be parental perspectives, approaches to teaching or a lack of promotion within the industry, there are many factors that continue to affect student engagement in STEM,” Page added.
“Historically, STEM has also been seen as the realm of the wealthy “brainiac” males. But slowly we’re changing this perception and ensuring the country understands that STEM for is everyone, male or female.”
Having studied Computer Science in the UK, and being the only female in the class from an early age, Page is living proof that STEM is for the masses, with the consequence of inaction deepening over time.
“Unless we address the skills gap we run the risk of falling further behind the rest of the global market and the digital economy,” Page cautioned. “I don’t think this will happen because I’ve never seen such a push across the industries to collaboratively try and address the issue.
“Whilst we collectively have a lot of work to do, I still have hope for my children.”
Despite government, tertiary and industry united in acknowledgement of the worsening STEM shortages in Australia, one overriding questions remains, whose responsibility is it to bridge the widening gap?
For Page, in drawing on two decades of ICT industry experience, the answer is simple; “the responsibility lies in each and every one of us first and foremost.”
“As a parent, mother, father, CEO, technologist, business, industry and government,” she said.
“It can start with simple steps at home with your children. My father taught me how to use computers from the age of eight and taught me great skills in life which was the best gift he ever gave me."
As a creative technology leader with a heart, and a conscious, Page said the Sydney-based company is working alongside schools, universities and education specialists to improve practices both internally and externally, demonstrating smarter integrations of technologies.
“We are not only passionate about education and making the technology hum in these environments but have taken it very seriously by recruiting education specialists and ex-teachers so we can really make a difference to parents, schools and teachers,” Page said.
Demonstrating the desire to instigate STEM change both professionally and personally, Page represents a growing voice within the local ICT industry, as educating Australia takes centre stage.
This article was originally published in the July issue of ARN magazine.