Tag Archives: Australia’s future

STEM skills

Building STEM skills

There has been a lot of talk about the need to get more students studying STEM skills –science, technology, engineering and mathematics – to equip them for the jobs of tomorrow. For Australia to have the right mix of high value jobs and industries to maintain or improve our quality of life, we need more people with the digital and data-related skills that these jobs require.

A natural assumption would be that the reason we need to encourage students to study science and other STEM skills is to boost our research clout – the cohort of technically trained people within Australia’s university and publicly funded research laboratories. While of course Australia’s research capabilities are a pivotal element of our innovation ecosystem, this misses the point.

In my view, the areas where we desperately need more graduates with STEM skills include industry, government, politics and the entrepreneurial domain.

The ability to use complex data to make evidence-based decisions has never been more critical for decision-making – whether that be in the corporate boardroom, the executive suite, or the cabinet room. Most of the global challenges we face – from climate change to cyber crime – require a sophisticated understanding of STEM and basic STEM skills.

Technology offers solutions to many emerging problems. But experience from the nuclear debate to genetically modified crops tells us that when communities aren’t equipped with a good understanding of the scientific process and complexities behind these issues, it is extraordinarily difficult to secure the societal license required to introduce transformative technological solutions.

But the kicker is entrepreneurship – where young people have some of the best opportunities to harness rapidly emerging technological disruption to create high-value jobs. There is no question that many of these opportunities come from the STEM disciplines. We need to create opportunities where young people studying STEM skills are exposed to entrepreneurial ecosystems, have the chance to see first–hand what it takes and give it a go.

“We can’t afford to wait for more girls to select these traditionally male-dominated careers – we need to be proactive in creating pathways and incentives for girls to enter these fields.”

There are some STEM fields where we need to focus serious effort on getting more girls to engage. In particular, IT and engineering. Both areas are so critical to Australia’s future that we simply can’t afford to be building on half our talent base.

We can’t afford to wait for more girls to select these traditionally male-dominated careers. We need to be proactive in creating pathways and incentives for girls to enter these fields. We also need to provide much better systems and cultures to retain our capable women in STEM and research.

One simple thing we can do is profile and celebrate those female role models who are currently making an impact and are the top of their game in these STEM fields. The recently launched SAGE initiative will be pivotal in helping address the dire under-representation of women at the most senior levels in Australia’s universities and research organisations.

It’s worth noting that research, development, innovation and discovery are all about building from what’s already known. They’re about asking new questions and connecting existing knowledge. This is, at its heart, a creative process. We can’t forget that one of the critical elements in nurturing our most outstanding future engineers and scientists lies in supporting children to engage in the creative arts alongside STEM.

Tanya Monro

Deputy Vice Chancellor Research and Innovation, University of South Australia

Read next: Stephanie Borgman, People Program Specialist at Google Australia/NZ, on how internships offer mutual opportunities for students and businesses.

People and careers: Meet graduates and postgraduates who’ve paved brilliant, cross-disciplinary careers here, find further success stories here and explore your own career options at postgradfutures.com

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Firing up our start-ups

Firing up our start-ups

Stories of ‘unicorn’ Initial Public Offerings and billionaires in their 30s are great. But it’s the creation of quality jobs that truly makes innovation a national priority.

A recent report from the Office of the Chief Economist showed Australia added about one million jobs from 2006–11. Start-up companies added 1.4 million jobs, whereas older companies shed 400,000 jobs over the same period. But it’s not any start-up that matters; only 3.2% of start-ups take off in a dramatic fashion, providing nearly 80% of those new jobs. While Australia has a relatively high rate of companies starting up, the key seems to be getting more of them into high-growth mode.

When Israel faced a massive influx of immigrants after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, it turned to innovation as a means of providing jobs. Given the country’s lack of natural resources, they didn’t have a choice. A population of four million people taking in one million more meant Israel had to become an innovative economy.

They grew their investment in research and development dramatically – to the point where Israel is now one of only two countries consistently spending more than 4% of GDP on R&D.

Israel has translated that spending into high-tech export success. Now, multinational technology company Intel employs over 10,000 Israelis. The Israeli Government is hands-on in its approach to de-risking early stage companies. But this is not achieved through government spending alone. In fact, the Israeli Government’s share of total R&D spending is just one-third of that of Australia, and its higher education sector is just one half. Business carries the lion’s share of R&D spending in Israel, making up 80% of the total, compared with 60% in Australia.

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If we want jobs, we need innovation. We are in a unique period when there seems to be complete political agreement on this point. If we want innovation, we should take lessons from wherever we can learn them to develop the Australian system. A lesson from Israel is to use government spending more effectively at the early stages of company development to shift more start-ups into high-growth mode. If we could double the current 3.2% of today’s start-ups that become high-growth companies, we could provide more rewarding jobs for Australia’s future.

Israel concentrates almost 100% of its government innovation support for business on small and medium-sized enterprises. The comparable figure for Australia is 50% – a big hint for what we could do differently to fire up our start-up sector.

–Tony Peacock

Tony Peacock is CEO of the Cooperative Research Centres Association and founder of KnowHow.