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STEM skills:


Strong science, engineering, technology and mathematics (STEM) skills, are extremely important for the knowledge economy.

While often associated with the university sector, the report Australia’s STEM Workforce released by the Office of the Chief Scientist on Australia’s STEM workforce shows that the vocational education and training (VET) sector provides more than two thirds of Australia’s STEM workforce.

However, different industries have different levels of STEM needs and more work needs to be done with the relevant training packages to specify realistic standards for STEM-related competency requirements.

COVID-19 impact

STEM occupations were a priority during the pandemic, from the multitude of COVID-19 tests, the manufacturers and engineers who pivoted their businesses to produce vital PPE products and equipment, to the technology workers who shifted operations online to facilitate working from home or business continuity.

The Professionals Australia submission Investing in Engineering, Science and ICT to Rebuild Australia's Economy Post-COVID-19 states that STEM skills are a priority area which needs investment. The technical and enterprise skills of engineers and scientists need commitment to career-long learning and as well as the reskilling and upskilling of IT professionals as key enablers of innovation, increased productivity and maximising opportunities that may be presented by the pandemic.

The National Skills Commission (NSC) publication The Shape of Australia's Post COVID-19 Workforce, in their assessment of characteristics associated with the most resilient occupations, finds that a total of 41.3% of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) occupations (as classified by the NSC) are on the resilient occupations list, compared with 30.7% of occupations overall, indicating the importance of these skills to the economy.

Industry skills needs

Generic skills

In their cmprehensive 2019 Skills Forecasts, IRCs ranked a series of 12 generic skill categories, in priority order.

cience, technology, engineering and mathematics skills received an average ranking of 8th (out of 12) across all skills forecasts.

Priority skills

STEM skills were also identified, but only to a low level, by industries that reported on specific priority skills in their 2019 Skills Forecasts.

While not highly ranked across all industries, STEM skills are a high priority for a handful of industries, including:

  • Manufacturing, specifically within the following industry sectors:
    • Textiles, Clothing and Footwear
    • Furnishing.

Interestingly, the value of STEM skills may, in fact, be under-reported in Skills Forecasts – this is supported by a statement in the Textiles, Clothing and Footwear IRC’s 2019 Skills Forecast, which notes that employers believe “STEM and Language, Literacy and Numeracy (LLN) skills are vitally important in the TCF workforce, but employers have an expectation that new workers have developed these skills to a suitable entry level before they commence work”. This explains why STEM skills were not ranked as highly by the Textiles, Clothing and Footwear industry, and perhaps by other industries also.

Internet job postings

Internet job vacancy postings that contained requests for STEM skills were examined for occupational trends. This includes pathology, chemistry, biology, botany, engineering, and experimental expertise. The chart below compares the percentage of internet job postings in each occupation (ANZSCO Major Group) that requested STEM skills.

Internet job postings that requested STEM skills, by occupation (2016-20)

Source: Burning Glass Technologies’ Labor Insight™ Real-time Labor Market Information tool.

STEM skills were most often requested for professionals and technicians and trades workers, and were rarely requested for most other types of occupation. Because most STEM skills are relevent to specific technical or professional occupations, it is likely that employers only request them when the occupation directly demands it.

The following graphic shows examples of occupations where STEM skills are highly requested, and some examples of the types of requests employers are making for those in these occupations.

When employers request STEM skills, they often directly request tertiary qualifications in the relevant field. This suggests that employers rely on formal qualifications in order to gauge the STEM skills of potential employees.

Case studies

Textiles, Clothing and Footwear

The Textiles, Clothing and Footwear industry is grouped into three broad areas:

  • Production of clothing, textiles, footwear, leather goods and technical textiles
  • Provision of services including fashion and textile design, dry cleaning operations, laundry operations and clothing and footwear repairs
  • Processing and manufacturing of natural (wool, cotton and leather) and synthetic materials such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and shade cloth.

This industry is evolving, partly due to new technologies and materials such as technical textiles and nonwoven fibres, which has led to further increases in the demand for a STEM-skilled workforce. The following areas are experiencing growth as a result of research and development:

  • Carbon fibres and composites in clothing and footwear
  • Functional fibrous materials used in medical textiles, super hydrophobic textiles and protective garments and gloves
  • Nanofibers used in filtration, tissues engineering, energy generation and reinforcement sensors
  • Biomedical applications of natural fibre structures.

According to the Textiles, Clothing and Footwear IRC’s 2019 Skills Forecast:

Australian operators are using new technology to develop high performance fibres with improved durability, strength, moisture absorption and flame resistance. New manufacturing management software is also being used to optimise production processes allowing better inventory management, faster turnaround times and greater market responsiveness.

Further, in their skills forecast the Textiles, Clothing and Footwear IRC identified the following skills Diploma graduates can bring to newly established businesses:

Diploma graduates are securing jobs with young designers who have established businesses after graduating with a university degree. The experience has been that university graduates have business skills but little practical skill in pattern making, product development and the development of Tech Packs77 for overseas production. Diploma graduates can bring these skills to the business.

The forecast goes on to explain that:

With a predominantly female workforce in some sectors of the TCF industry, Vogue Australia has identified the need to increase the number of women with the STEM skills to support technological development in the industry.


A shift in Australia to more niche and bespoke products in the TCF industry relies on the availability of quality craftsmanship and strong technical skills. The Alvanon survey of the international apparel industry found that respondents emphasised the need for technical training rather than leadership or soft skills. In their resulting report, the authors stated that because technical skills are outsourced by many businesses, universities have stopped providing these skills in fashion qualifications. Additionally, the introduction of sophisticated digital technologies into the industry has made it hard for educators to keep pace with the technical skills that are applied in the industry.

Updated: 23 Mar 2021
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