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STEM skills:

Overview

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 have continued to unpin many of the essential services required for the public health response to the pandemic, including millions of COVID-19 tests and vaccinations, manufacturers and engineers pivoted their businesses to produce vital PPE products and health and safety equipment, and technology workers shifted operations online to facilitate working from home or business continuity.

The Laboratory Operations Case for Change states COVID-19 has resulted in a surge in demand for molecular testing to detect active infections with SARS-CoV-2, and genomic testing for contact tracing.

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 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.

The NSC also reports that prior to the pandemic, between February 2015 and February 2020, employment in STEM occupations grew by 17.7%, representing a growth rate that was 1.5 times faster than that seen in non-STEM jobs. Employment in STEM occupations fell by only 1.9% when economic activity was restricted from February to May 2020, which is less than a third of the 7.0% decrease experienced in employment in non-STEM occupations.

Industry skills needs

State of Australia’s Skills 2021: Now and Into the Future reports that STEM skills form an integral part of the labour market in Australia, facilitating more complex and innovative work in many industries. In the 20 years before the emergence of COVID-19, employment in STEM occupations grew by 85.0% which was more than twice as fast as non-STEM occupations (40.2%). Employment in STEM occupations is projected to grow by 12.9% in the next five years, well above the average of all occupations (7.8%) and more than twice as fast as non-STEM occupations (6.2%).

The Australia’s STEM Workforce report and the STEM occupations list used by the Department of Education, Skills and Employment highlight there is not a single, nationally or internationally, recognised definition of STEM. The findings of Changing demand for STEM skills in Australia and gender implications include that technical and trade jobs account for almost the same level of demand for STEM skills as professional occupations, reflecting the importance of including the VET sector in any STEM agenda.

In Australia’s STEM Workforce, the term STEM qualified refers to people with the highest level of post-secondary qualification in the broad Australian Standard Classification of Education (ASCED) fields of education of Natural and Physical Sciences, Information Technology, Engineering and Related Technologies, Agriculture, and Environmental and Related Studies. The report states that for the VET STEM qualified labour force, 80% held qualifications within the Engineering field of education, followed by 10% for Agriculture and Environmental Science, 8% for Information Technology and 2% for Natural and Physical Sciences.

The STEM Equity Monitor reports that in 2020, many women STEM VET graduates reported their training to have some or high relevance to their jobs. In the field of All STEM, this was 56% of women, compared to 78% of men, 61% in the field of Agriculture, environmental and related studies compared to 81% of men, 69% in Engineering and related technologies compared to 81% of men, 57% in Natural and physical sciences compared to 61% of men, and 56% in Information compared to 49% of men. Comparatively, approximately 75% of women and men who graduated across all VET fields of education reported that their training was relevant to their job.

Some specific examples of industries that have identified STEM skills as important include:

  • Agriculture
  • Defence
  • Electrotechnology
  • Food and Pharmaceutical Production
  • Government
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Manufacturing
  • Maritime
  • Mining
  • Rail

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 (2018-21)

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

Defence

Defence and intelligence organisations, including associated administrative and support functions, is part of the Public Safety industry, which also comprises:

  • Police,
  • Fire and rescue services,
  • Maritime rescue,
  • Emergency services and emergency management agencies.

Additionally, the Automotive Manufacturing and the Metal, Engineering and Boating Industries sub-sectors of the Automotive and Manufacturing Industries form part of the Defence Industry supply chain.

The need for STEM and related skills was identified in the Public Safety 2021 Industry Outlook, and is highlighted by the following quotes:

Defence continues to invest in development programs aimed at advancing workforce skills by delivering high-quality training to trade apprenticeships, leadership and management in a wide variety of fields, including cybersecurity, intelligence, forensics, health, security analysis and engineering

The Defence Industry Skilling and STEM Strategy also states:

The modernisation of Australia's defence capability will rely on diverse workforces both in Defence and defence industry and people with skills in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Defence industry comprises thousands of Australian businesses, employing women and men who are not in the Australian Defence Force but use their expertise, technical and trade skills to supply capability and support services. An appropriately skilled and STEM enabled workforce provides Defence and industry with the ability to innovate and solve problems, respond rapidly to changing military requirements and maintain a technological edge for Defence to achieve its mission: to defend Australia and its national interests. As defence capabilities become more technologically complex, the demand for skilled people, including those with STEM skills, within defence and defence industry will increase.

The Western Australia Logistics & Defence Skills Council states in the Defence Industry Profile:

According to the Naval Shipbuilding Plan, the Federal Government will invest up to $62 million in workforce growth and skilling initiatives to enable the delivery of naval ships, submarines, and modern shipyard infrastructure. The type of the work and the affiliated support services feeding into this industry will generate a growing need for more Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) skills.

The Defence Industry Skilling and STEM Support information provided by the Australian Government Department of Defence includes:

The Australian Government is investing $270 billion in Australia's defence capability to ensure Australia remains secure, well into the future. This investment is expected to deliver significant opportunities for Australian industry and generate an increasing demand for a highly skilled and STEM specialised workforce.

The 2020 Defence Strategic Update includes:

Science, technology, engineering and maths skills will underpin the industries and jobs of the future, including in the defence sector. The Schools Pathways Program, the Defence Industry Internship Program and a new Skilling Australia’s Defence Industry program will continue to equip the defence sector with the skilled workforce it will require to support and sustain the ADF. The Naval Shipbuilding College is also working closely with industry and education and training stakeholders to understand demand and supply requirements of the naval shipbuilding industry throughout all phases of build and sustainment.

Mining, Drilling and Civil Infrastructure

The Mining, Drilling and Civil Infrastructure industry comprises five main industry sectors:

  • Civil Infrastructure.
  • Coal Mining
  • Drilling
  • Extractive Industries (Quarrying)
  • Metalliferous Mining.

The need for STEM and related skills was identified in the Australia’s National Resources Workforce Strategy, and is highlighted by the following quotes:

[The] sector increasingly needs new skills, especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, driven by the uptake of new technologies and the development of methods to bring new commodities like hydrogen and critical minerals to the market.

The Government is working to remove barriers, break down gender stereotypes and create an inclusive workforce by working with industry to attract women into the resources sector, particularly in STEM fields.

STEM skills underpin a variety of roles in the resources sector, both traditional and emerging. They are fundamental for new jobs being created by technology. STEM skills fuel innovation, leading to new discoveries, products and technologies that ensure Australia remains a world leader in the resources sector.

The Minerals Council of Australia Submission to Indigenous Skills and Employment Program Discussion Paper includes:

Shared focus has resulted in the minerals industry employing a higher proportion of Indigenous Australians than any other sector. Progress is positive. Yet there is more to do, particularly to increase the number of Indigenous Australians in mining leadership, trades and technical, and science (including environmental management), technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) roles. The growing minerals workforce relies on these roles.

The Resource Industry Training Council Industry Developments and Workforce Challenges: Mining/ Oil and Gas includes:

Improved penetration of the nationally recognized training system will involve industry engaging and creating partnerships with educational providers. The Rio Tinto/ South Metropolitan TAFE VET Collaboration is a positive example of such collaboration in action with the introduction of Australia’s first nationally recognised qualifications in automation, providing workers, with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in an increasingly STEM-based industry.

Updated: 29 Mar 2022
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