Driving the workforce of the future: connecting business to STEM scholars

How can organisations disrupt themselves to adapt to the future of work? There’s much focus on the introduction of digital technology, but one organisation has taken a very different, human-centred approach.
Over the past 12 months, Westpac Group (a large Australian financial institution) has supported a cohort of STEM PhD students to work part-time within different parts of their business. The ambitious aim is to stimulate diversity of thought in order to solve challenging problems – and it’s working. We interviewed Sandra Casinader, Head of Strategy and Research at Westpac to find out more about the program – the objectives, challenges and learnings.

Background

In early 2017, the Westpac Group partnered with the Group of Eight (Go8) Universities to launch a unique program. This program targeted talented STEM PhD students from across Australia’s top universities offering them paid, part-time employment with the Westpac Group while they completed their studies. Casinader is passionate about connecting business with what she believes are critical skillsets for the future. And while one might not think that a PhD science student is a natural fit for a bank, Sandra argues that STEM students bring a different perspective and ‘out of the box’ ideas to problems that they face every day at the bank. Eight students were selected to join Westpac after a rigorous selection process. This small cohort has been given the unique opportunity to complete their PhD’s while working part-time. The students undertake, two 24-month rotations across the business over the course of four years.

Objectives

When asked about what inspired the STEM PhD Program, Casinader explains that it was initiated out the recognition that the workplace of 2025 will be very different place for Westpac and its customers. “When thinking about the core capabilities of our future workforce, my team and I recognised the critical need to engage the STEM discipline, not only their technical expertise but also their ability to bring an innovative mindset to problem solving. Our research shows there is a vast amount of talent in the academic and tertiary sector particularly amongst those who are completing STEM PhD degrees.”

She goes on to say “PhD researchers in particular can bring a number of transferable skills to the workplace. Through their close connection to recent research, these students bring the opportunity to apply this to our commercial and business challenges. Many of the students come from diverse cultural and demographic backgrounds, this gives us a fresh perspective on how to analyse and solve problems. The more that people in the business see the value-add that these students bring, particularly our senior leaders, the more diversity of thought will be valued.”

While the program fills a need at Westpac, Casinader further explains that STEM PhD degrees also have an important role to play in the future of our nation. The cross-collaboration between business and academia has the potential to make an enhanced contribution to industry and the wider Australian economy. This is particularly critical given that Australia is currently falling behind its developed peers including New Zealand, UK, USA and Canada in global innovation indices (2017).

Outcomes

Casinader says that the outcomes from the pilot program Westpac should see benefits returned to business – not only just from the value delivered by the students – but the value added through strengthening the relationship between the bank and the research arms of Go8 universities. To highlight how big these benefits can be Casinader shares an example; one student applied their analytical skills to a problem in the retail branches. By applying his idea to term deposits, Westpac identified a cost saving opportunity and is now investigating where the bank can apply these same ideas to other products.

Support

To further facilitate diversity of thought and challenging the usual way of thinking, Casinader also purposefully matched the PhD students with senior business leaders from different technical backgrounds. The mentor helps their designated student settle into their new team, supports them with managing dual workloads, and helps them pitch ideas and navigating the corporate environment.

Challenges

The program is a key initiative for Casinader and her HR Strategy team. And while it has had some early success, there have been some challenges encountered along the way:

  • A time consuming process. Setting up the relationship with the Go8 universities has been a time consuming process.
  • Managing multiple stakeholder buy-in. Getting buy-in from key stakeholders has been challenging – convincing people of the value has been hard work. There are also a number of different stakeholders to manage, including the Go8 stakeholders, the students’ research supervisors, and various groups of Westpac stakeholders, including the senior leader sponsors, the mentors and the students’ direct line managers.
  • Balancing student study commitments. There are also logistical challenges in managing the students with regard to balancing study and work. Westpac has countered this by putting an emphasis on flexible working, and planning students’ schedules ahead of time in order to understand key dates in the students’ calendars (e.g. conferences and research commitments).
Learnings

As the nature of the workforce changes, this Westpac case study provides businesses and academia with four key learnings to leverage diversity of thought in the workplace and drive the workforce of the future;

Learning one: It supports collaboration and innovation by bringing together different types of thinkers and problems in the workplace. Further highlighting the need for (and celebrating) diversity of thought.

Learning two: It recognises and celebrates the need for STEM disciplines as part of Australia’s core future of work capabilities in order to solve key business challenges.

Learning three: It supports academic researchers to achieve research outcomes that benefit society more broadly (students must complete their PhD pathway as a condition of the program and a commercial lens helps the students look at the application of research insights differently).

Learning four: It addresses Australia’s declining position in global innovation indices. In building key relationships between business and academia, organisations stay close to new research from local universities.

What’s next?

Although the program is still very much in its infancy, feedback from senior leaders within the business has been highly promising to date, according to Casinader. The business took on eight students this year, and demand for PhD students via this program is growing fast, showing potential for a future roll out of the program on a larger scale.

Read more about Westpac’s PhD STEM Program.


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