Increasing Australia’s STEM capabilities amid COVID-19

As Australia moves to re-establish and grow its economy, particularly in manufacturing areas, the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) skills shortfall that has been experienced for some years must be remedied. The crisis has served to highlight STEM skills deficits as it focusses businesses on the benefits of increasing digital transformation.

A major focus must be given to growing the STEM workforce, especially in areas of the economy where critical skills shortages had already existed.

While longer-term solutions to the STEM skills shortfall properly concentrate on the school sector,[1] there is much to be done to reduce short-term pressure as businesses resume activity.

Wage support for companies to take on apprentices in STEM fields is vital. In May, Ai Group called for universal wage support for apprentices and trainees in stage one and two of their contracts.

Support must be provided to employers to retrain existing workers in STEM areas. Financial incentives are needed as they re-skill employees for COVID-19-changed business models. SMEs in particular need support to secure the necessary STEM skills. In regions, SMEs could be supported where they establish partnerships involving a number of businesses to train within a specific industry sector.

Training support for displaced workers must align with industry’s needs in STEM areas.

In its COVID-19 recovery plan, Engineers Australia has advised that:

“undergraduate engineering students continue to have engagement with workplace practices; this is an essential component of their education. Without additional support for students, graduations will be delayed, and the workforce supply pipeline disrupted.

Industry is strongly urged to continue employing new graduate engineers to reduce the risk of a crippling shortage of mid-career engineers in future years.”[2]

Research shows that women in STEM have been disproportionately affected by the economic impacts of the global pandemic.[3] However, others are predicting an economic renaissance through a post-pandemic tech boom, by investments in:

“retraining at a time of high unemployment, and unlock[ing] the full potential of our future workforce by deliberately including gender equity targets, as well as ensuring vulnerable people are not further marginalised.”[4]

The Australian Government can take a leadership role to step up the development of STEM capabilities in conjunction with industry. A renewed approach is needed to address school, university, VET and industry involvement. Sufficient resourcing is required to develop a coordinated and systemic response to the STEM issue.

 

[1] Department of Education, Skills and Employment, Support for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) https://www.education.gov.au/support-science-technology-engineering-and-mathematics

[2] Engineers Australia, COVID-19 Recovery: A 9-Point Plan, May 2020 https://www.engineersaustralia.org.au/sites/default/files/resource-files/2020-05/COVID-19%20Recovery%20a%209-point%20plan%20from%20Engineers%20Australia.pdf

[3] Rapid Research Information Forum, The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in the STEM workforce, 17 May 2020 https://www.science.org.au/covid19/women-stem-workforce

[4] Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, Investing in a post-COVID-19 tech boom, 22 April 2020 https://www.atse.org.au/news-and-events/article/6706/

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Megan Lilly
Megan has been Head of Workforce Development at Ai Group since May 2015. Prior to this she was Director - Education & Training at Ai Group. The newly formed Workforce Development Division of Ai Group is responsible for developing all education and training policy and undertaking advocacy on behalf of our members. The division also provides an end-to-end suite of workforce development solutions for Ai Group members. In undertaking this role Megan is also Chair of Manufacturing Skills Australia, a member of the Australian College of Education, member of the Australia India Education Council and Chair of the Skills Working Group. She is a Board member of the Australian Industry Group Training Trust.
Megan Lilly

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