• Chief scientist, Dr Cathy Foley.
    Chief scientist, Dr Cathy Foley.

Australia’s chief scientist, Dr Cathy Foley, explains why Australia is not getting the full value of its investment in STEM education.

Australia is not getting the full value of its investment in STEM education.

The STEM Career Pathways report, commissioned by the National Science and Technology Council and prepared by Science & Technology Australia, is a valuable evidence base. It includes a survey of more than 3500 people with STEM qualifications.

The survey shows significant gender disparity and job insecurity. The report demonstrates the need for changes to support more mobility between sectors, to improve retention in science careers, particularly for women, and to better match skills and sectors.

It demonstrates the commitment and passion of our STEM workforce, but the system needs to do more to support people once they’ve chosen a STEM career, so we don’t lose the value of this highly trained group.

I was struck by the difference between the number of men and women on permanent contracts – the survey suggests women are much more likely to be on short-term contracts. Those contracts are almost always for three years or fewer.

We need to increase the number of people studying STEM. We also need to better align skills with industry growth areas to correct the mismatch between demand and supply. We’re not necessarily training people in the right areas – engineering, mathematics and physics, for example, are areas of chronic shortage.

I want to see easier ways to move between sectors – in and out of university jobs, research institutions, government and industry. There are too many artificial barriers that discourage trained people from moving between sectors.

There’s a lack of visibility, so that people think about STEM careers as university careers only, whereas the options are much wider.

The success of Australia’s society and economy over the next two decades depends on an effective response to climate change and clean energy, artificial intelligence and other digital technologies, and emerging capabilities in quantum, robotics and medtech.

That means changing the shape of our economy to a focus on high-tech manufacturing.

Getting the settings right in the STEM workforce will be important to success.