What to do about our STEM problem?

Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, has proposed, a national strategy for building Australia’s capabilities across science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), and to support this, Deloitte Access Economics has undertaken research into the country’s STEM workforce that highlights some of the challenges at the coalface.

We surveyed Australian businesses and found that almost half of all employers expect their requirements for STEM skills to increase over the next five years. More than 80% of respondents agreed that people with STEM qualifications are valuable to the workplace (even when their qualification is not a prerequisite for the role), and 71% nominated employees with STEM skills as their most innovative people, and those most able to adapt to change.

Despite this, enticing school leavers into studying STEM qualifications is a real challenge.

Our survey results also found that the most important skill or attribute valued by employers is the ability to learn on the job (active learning), followed by critical thinking, complex problem-solving, and creative problem-solving. Not only do these skills correlate closely with STEM qualifications, but STEM qualified employees were rated as outscoring their non-STEM colleagues across nearly all skills included in the survey.

More than 40% of respondents reported difficulty recruiting STEM-qualified technicians and trade workers, and over 30% reported difficulty recruiting other STEM graduates.

While this is often referred to as a STEM skills ‘shortage’, a more apt description is a skills ‘mismatch’, and an underlying mismatch of applicant and employer expectations.

At the heart of the problem is a lack of collaboration between educators and employers.

Some of the issues encountered by respondents during recent recruitment exercises included a lack of business understanding and the content of qualifications not being relevant to the business. Work experience is one of the most highly valued STEM graduate attributes, and yet 62% of respondents said they don’t offer structured placements for students.


Similarly, while many employers expressed frustration with university KPI frameworks, engagement with the education sector is limited and ad hoc (Australia ranks 29th on the OECD Innovation Scorecard’s collaboration indicator, far below the first-placed United Kingdom).

Although the focus of our research was to build an understanding of demand for STEM skills, a recurring concern related to the supply of such skills, and the lack of early skills development and encouragement.

At a primary and secondary school level, participants noted that while engagement with technology is increasing, there is little understanding of how the technology works, and identified a need to integrate technology across the school curriculum rather than it being taught as a separate stream.

Respondents lamented the number of STEM teachers in high schools ‘teaching out of field’, which not only affected the quality of education, but also reduced opportunities to encourage students to consider STEM tertiary studies and the associated career opportunities.

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