The importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills were highlighted during the recent federal election. With the election over, the sector is now focussed on the opportunities ahead. Manufacturers’ Monthly reports.
While the federal Coalition government, in its 2019 budget, recognised the need for greater enrolment of young people – and, in particular, young women – into STEM courses, the industry is calling out for action to help bring the Australian workforce up to speed with the rapid transformations in the industrial sector.
In delivering his budget, Treasurer Josh Frydenburg stated that the Coalition government would increase funding for programs encouraging the participation of women and girls in STEM. The budget papers detailed a $3.4 million package to support the greater participation of girls and women in STEM.
A report conducted by the Australian government, Towards 2025: An Australian Government Strategy to Boost Women’s Workforce Participation, found that today, men account for 84 per cent of all people who hold STEM qualifications. Less than 10 per cent of all engineering graduates in Australia are female, while in information technology (IT), only one in four graduates are women.
Geoff Crittenden, CEO of Weld Australia, noted that women are needed for industry to reach its potential.
“If we are to successfully deliver all the infrastructure and defence projects for the foreseeable future, we’re going to need almost as many women welders as we have men welders. We need to stop thinking about tradesmen and thinking about tradespeople and encouraging girls to get into their high vis and get out there,” said Crittenden.
The Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, Karen Andrews, stated that “to ensure our children can compete for jobs in the coming decades, we need to build a strong Australian workforce with more science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills”.
Jonathan Russell, national manager for public affairs at Engineers Australia concurs, arguing that STEM skills will be needed, even if what industry will look like in the future is still unclear.
“I don’t think anybody truly knows what’s going to be needed in terms of technical skills in 10, 20, 30 years. What we do know though, is that engineering skills are going to be needed no matter what the future brings,” said Russell.
Encouraging the young
To encourage more children and young people to pursue study and a career in STEM, the federal government will increase the funding of the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) initiative. This initiative, delivered in partnership with the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, implements the Athena Scientific Women’s Academic Network (SWAN) model for Australia. Developed in the UK, Athena SWAN is known internationally for encouraging gender inclusive workplaces, and helped institutions attract the best talent.
“SAGE helps to facilitate a journey of continuous improvement in gender equity and diversity by shifting culture and practices and encouraging initiatives for change used by higher education and research organisations,” said Dr Wafa El-Adhami, executive director of SAGE.
With Industry 4.0 requiring manufacturing workplaces to adopt technologies such as automation, artificial intelligence (AI), the analysis of big data and the industrial internet of things (IIoT), skills learnt in STEM fields will be essential.
Head of Workforce Development at Ai Group, Megan Lilly, highlighted the need for connections between training and industry.
“There’s no doubt that we need to increase the pipeline and talent pool of STEM graduates, therefore we need more funding both in the vocational and higher education systems for STEM based qualifications and we’re also very keen to make sure they’re applied learning qualifications where possible,” said Lilly.
To increase the visibility of STEM careers, the federal government has also allocated $15.1 million to the science museum Questacon.
The expansion of programming promoting science by the Canberra- based institution will connect the ideas and processes of STEM disciplines with the young minds who will be grappling with the rapid changes forecast to affect the sector as Industry 4.0 disrupts established methods of production.
Minister Andrews said that, with this expansion, the Coalition government was making an effort to reduce the barriers preventing young Australians from accessing science.
A key issue for the future of manufacturing industry is its ability to attract talented young people, who are often drawn to other career paths, as Crittenden highlighted.
“You can pump money into STEM training, and that’s a very laudable practice, but it doesn’t really resolve the issue. The issue is, what drives young people into engineering? This is the real problem; how do we make manufacturing attractive for young people?” said Crittenden.
For those students at a later stage of their education, the 2019- 2020 budget also provided funding for 15 Innovation Games over two years. The $3.6 million in funding is earmarked to to not only go to metropolitan areas, but regional areas as well. In a statement, Andrews highlighted that the Innovation Games provide the opportunity for university students and graduates to apply the skills learnt in the STEM classroom to real world problems, for the benefit of local businesses.
Other federal government agencies, such as CSIRO, whose funding increased by $6 million in line with indexation, have continued to pursue projects to encourage young Australians to pursue a career in STEM. Generation STEM, a ten-year initiative run by the CSIRO in NSW, aims to both ensure that students have the knowledge and skills for the 21st century, and enable industry and employers to connect with the talent they need in a competitive economy. Targeting diverse and top-level students, the program hopes to attract and retain students to the STEM fields.
The domestic space industry also got a boost in the most recent federal budget. First announced in 2018 with a $300 million investment, this year the federal government increased funding by $19.5 million with a Space Infrastructure Fund. Hoping to create 30,000 jobs in this sector by 2030, the announcement of further funding in this budget provides motivation but is only the first step, according to Lilly.
“We should build the enthusiasm of young people for space, but also advanced manufacturing, digitisation and a whole range of emerging industries and occupations. We welcome the space funding, but we see it as but a beginning,” said Lilly.
Described by Frydenburg as “backing the industries of the future,” investment in the space sector will be hoped to spur investment elsewhere in high-tech manufacturing and provide demand for those who have studied in STEM fields.
A similar approach is being taken in the medical research sector. While medical research and development occurs in our higher education institutions, the federal government has set aside $254 million for the commercialisation of medical research. The application of medical research to commercial outcomes has the potential to spur investment in manufacturing processes which support medical procedures.
These proposals are not without their critics. Professor John Shine, president of the Australian Academy of Science, criticised cuts elsewhere in the budget. “It is counterintuitive to seek to produce a surplus by cutting the knowledge economy and by cutting funding to Australia’s key science and research agencies such as the Australian Research Council,” said Shine.
In addition, Professor Emma Johnston, the president of Science and Technology Australia (STA) argued that research in other fields is in need of commercialisation.
“A complementary Fund to support the translation and commercialisation of knowledge built through non-medical science research programs would amplify the economic returns that STEM brings for Australia,” Johnston said.
The federal government will continue be pressured by industry leaders to use the forecast future surpluses to further ensure that advances in STEM knowledge are applied to industry outcomes and encourage young men and women to pursue a career in STEM.
Industry concerns about the gap in the skills required to place Australia in a competitive position within the global economy have vindicated by research. Examining demand and supply for digital skills in Australia, a recent RMIT study found that many employers are unprepared for the digital future of work and risk being left behind.
The team of researchers from RMIT University’s College of Business, led by Associate Professor Victor Gekara, compiled the Skilling the Australian workforce for the digital economy report for the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER).
Gekara said that the changing nature of Australia’s industrial landscape, under the pressure of global competition, was leading to rapid transformation in workplaces. “Despite this reality, the adoption of digital technology across many of the organisations we studied was gradual and restricted, rather than rapid and comprehensive,” Gekara said. “This is concerning.”
Gekara explained that the lack of preparedness was usually due to cost considerations, over-reliance on the open market to prepare the workforce, or mere complacency. The report calls for a comprehensive Australian national digital skills framework, similar to the Australian Core Skills Framework for numeracy and literacy skills, as a sustainable approach to meeting demand.
“This would assist employers to identify digital skills gaps and help training providers to develop targeted training programs,” Gekara said.
The report also indicated that many employers lack confidence in the capacity of the current VET system to effectively develop the digital skills required for highly digitalised economy that is emerging. There is also industry uncertainty about what is required from in the shape of government policy intervention to ensure that digital skills in Australia were adequately developed.
The report called for government and industry to work together more closely with the VET sector to ensure the skills necessary for future workplaces are guaranteed.
“The only way to have an effective and sustainable system for developing these kinds of
skills is when you have employers committed to invest in training efforts and working closely with training providers to identify need, design programs and monitor their application under a strong relevant national policy,” Gekara said.
Recent research undertaken by Swinburne University of Technology, PwC, Siemens and the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) – as part of the Australian Industry (Ai) Group Industry 4.0 Forum agenda – has identified the ways in which manufacturing businesses and workforces must adapt to changes being wrought by Industry 4.0.
The research report, Transforming Australian Manufacturing: Preparing businesses and workplaces for Industry 4.0, emerged from the work of the Industry 4.0 Advanced Manufacturing Forum Workstream co-chaired by Swinburne’s Professor Aleksandar Subic, deputy vice-chancellor (research and development) and Andrew Dettmer, AMWU president.
Launched during National Manufacturing Week, the report provides information and advice for government, industry, unions and peak employer bodies, and education/research institutions.
Focussing on the changes being made by Industry 4.0, the report calls on industry, education, unions, peak bodies and government to collaborate to drive innovation and workforce transformation. Among its eight recommendations, the report proposes that new funding, delivery and accreditation models be created to support lifelong learning, reskilling and upskilling throughout the work lifecycle.
The report also identifies the emerging skills that the manufacturing sector requires, including in intelligent data analytics, automation systems, cyber security, and IIoT. According to the report, this will require the upskilling of existing workers for changing jobs, as well as the recruitment of new entrants to the manufacturing workforce.
Subic said that the report presents findings that include international and national best practice of workforce transformation initiatives in the advanced manufacturing sector. “In order for Australian companies to access global value chains and associated benefits within an emerging Industry 4.0 world, our businesses and government must actively encourage and support new skills development in advanced industrial digitalisation across the entire continuum, from vocational training to higher education and PhDs,” Subic said. “This requires disruptive innovation in education and training based on new models of public and private sector partnerships.”
Getting government on board
According to STA president Emma Johnston, the re-eleciton of the Coalition government had given it a mandate to continue their work in setting a clear and strategic direction for the STEM sector.
“We encourage the new government to work with the science and research sectors to craft a formal plan and prioritise bold investment that empowers the Australian science and technology sector to secure the nation’s prosperity,” said Johnston.
“The National Science Statement in 2017 was a good first step, but we hope to see the sector provided with a strategic plan that enables it to most effectively contribute to Australia’s prosperity.”
The reappointment of Karen Andrews as federal industry, science and technology minister in the Morrison cabinet has been welcomed by sectors of Australia’s science and technology community.
Andrews was first appointed to the role in August last year after Morrison became prime minister. Morrison announced Andrews would continue in her ministerial role in the new cabinet.
“Karen Andrews will work closely with industry stakeholders to create more and better paid jobs in traditional and emerging industries, and to continue championing science, technology, engineering and mathematics as key career paths for women,” Morrison said.
Johnston welcomed the return of Karen Andrews to her portfolio, and said it was an opportunity the stability the sector had been looking for.
“Minister Andrews has engaged meaningfully with scientists and technologists for many years as co- convenor of the Parliamentary Friends of Science, and recently as minister, and STA looks forward to continuing to work with her office as we represent tens of thousands of STEM professionals,” said Johnston.
She said the Coalition had begun some important projects in government and the sector was looking to them to continue this good work.
“We saw bold investment in research infrastructure, a visionary National Science Statement, and leadership in gender equity from the Coalition government,” she said.
“Now we hope the focus turns to forming a detailed whole-of- government plan for STEM; a plan that prioritises stronger government and business investment, attractive STEM education programs, and secure employment for all STEM professionals.”
Professor John Shine said that Andrews had been strong advocate for the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sector.
“A STEM-skilled MP in this portfolio provides the new Morrison government with a minister who has a deep understanding of the issues facing the sector,” Shine said.
“We look forward to working with Minister Andrews to implement the STEM measures announced in the Federal Budget in April budget, including $3.4 million in new funding to support women in STEM.”
After Labor’s election loss, federal Labor Senator Kim Carr announced that he would not renominate as shadow minister for innovation, industry, science and research, ending a two-decade stint on the frontbench in both government and opposition.
“For much of my time in Parliament I have been the Labor Party’s spokesperson on innovation industry, science and research. Innovation policy is critically important to the Labor movement. It is the thread that draws industry, science and research policy together,” Carr said.
“Labor will always seek to work with industry, unions and researchers to develop a 21st century industrial structure that will ensure prosperity for all Australians.
“My policy interests remain. I shall continue to advocate for the modernisation of Australian industry, and for restoring science and research policy to the centre of government,” he said.
Johnston said Carr will be remembered as a dedicated advocate for the STEM sector. “Whether it was the introduction of the Excellence in Research Australia initiative to measure the calibre of our work, the establishment and defence of the Education Investment Fund, or his dogged pursuit for transparency in Senate Estimates, Senator Carr will continue to have an enduring impact on Australian science and technology,” Johnston said.
Brendan O’Connor has been made the shadow minister for employment, industry, science, and small business, while Clare O’Neil has been appointed as the shadow minister for innovation, technology, and the future of work.
Johnston said she was pleased that the Labor opposition had given science, technology and research prominence in its shadow ministry. “Both [O’Connor and O’Neil] will bring a breadth of experience to the roles, and we hope to engage with them to discuss how to support the solutions sector to build a strong future for Australia.”