Industry, Science and Technology Minister Karen Andrews says Australia needs to address where the skills shortages are now before the country looks to importing labour.
This is one of two key priorities for Ms Andrew in her new role. The other is supporting Australia’s space industry. Her vision for both is centred on boosting the uptake of STEM skills among school students.
“Whilst we don’t know what the jobs of the future are going to be, there has been significant research that shows 75 per cent of the jobs of the future are going to require skills in the STEM subjects. We have to start from a very strong base in those science and maths subjects at school,” she told InnovationAus.com.
“If we’re going to look at how we’re going to meet our future school needs, step one is to have a sufficient number of students studying science and maths subjects at school.
“As we start to break that down, we know that there is a bit of disconnect with students when they’re about 8 years old to 11 years old. At that point, if they turn off science and maths, the prospect of them ever picking those subjects up again is quite small. This contrast is even more stark for girls.
“We’ve got to look at what we can do to develop that pipeline of skills through school.
“That doesn’t mean to ignore the humanity subjects, because they’re important and there’s an ever-increasing amount of evidence to suggest that arts and humanities are extremely important in the STEM debate. We need to make sure there is a good balance.”
But it’s not just about the children, according to Ms Andrews; it’s also about changing the mindset of parents too.
“I think a lot of parents themselves struggle a lot with maths and they’re very quick to calm their child down by saying ‘it’s okay I wasn’t very good at maths so it’s okay’,” she says.
“That type of pattern of thinking with the child that maths isn’t important, their parents have done well without being good at maths so it’s okay to not be good.”
“In fact, I’d like to change that mindset and encourage the parents to encourage their children to keep up with maths.”
When Ms Andrews was promoted in August as part of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Cabinet reshuffle, it set up a lot of expectations in the sector that innovation was going to return as a centrepiece for the government – and it looks like she’s pushing hard to make that happen.
Ms Andrews is Australia’s sixth industry minister since the Coalition won government at the 2013 election, and the third since January last year. Her predecessors were most recently Michaelia Cash and Arthur Sinodinos.
The Queensland MP was assistant minister for science under former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s first ministry, and was heavily involved in the development of the National Innovation and Science Agenda. She was a Parliamentary Secretary for Industry and Science in the original Abbott government.
Since taking the new role, Ms Andrews appointed Professor Lisa Harvey Smith as the first women in STEM ambassador. “She’s just the right person to be able to take the discussion not just to the schools but potentially into the board room. We have to get our businesses to understand that if they want to able to select from the best talent pool it has to include women.”
The government has just provided $600,000 in funding to support the Australian Academy of Science’s development of a 10-year plan for girls and women in STEM.
She’s also looking into initiatives such as Girls in STEM Tookit that was announced in June. It’s a grant opportunity that will run over four years from 2018-19 to 2021-22 designed to help address not only the lack of engagement in STEM subjects in schools, but also the under representation of girls and women at school, university and in the workplace.
Once the STEM skills shortage is addressed, Ms Andrews believes that it will have positive flow-on effects on Australia’s growing space industry.
“Australia is in a position to start leading the world in space. The other opportunity for us as well as jobs of the future is to use it as a source of inspiration for skilled people to keep up with their STEM skills and to keep studying science and maths at school,” Ms Andrews said.
“If we can capture that and show them there will be jobs in the space sector then I think we’re well on the way to addressing the skills shortages while at the same time growing a sector that we believe will grow $3.9 billion now to $12 billion by 2030.”