Home-grown solutions to technology skills shortage

By on 3 December, 2019

UNSW Sydney Dean of Engineering Professor Mark Hoffman.

The majority of Australians believe the continued and increasing need for high-technology skills in the workforce should be addressed through home-grown education and not by foreign skilled immigration, according to a new attitudinal survey.

Compounding the current critical shortage of high-tech qualified workers, Australian-based businesses and workers educated and trained in high-tech skills are heading overseas where they are better supported, the survey finds.

Instead, most people want local students and workers to be trained for and to stay in Australia’s own high-tech jobs and companies to help build this nation’s opportunities and prosperity. The findings follow recent revelations where skills challenges have negatively affected the banking and residential construction industries.

Tellingly, 66 per cent believe the current training and education system does not adequately prepare school leavers for the jobs and skills of the future, and 67 per cent say there is a disconnect between what people study and the types of jobs the country needs. And 64 per cent believe that at least 40 per cent of a university degree should be on the job training to get hands-on skills.

UNSW Sydney Dean of Engineering Professor Mark Hoffman, one of the experts appointed by the NSW Government to inquire into the Opal Tower crisis, said the current shortage of engineers and related high-tech professionals was putting pressure on core domestic industries, including in residential development that has seen defects cause people to move out of their homes.

“The shortage of skilled engineers and tradespeople fit for modern innovative building techniques was a factor leading to the spate of building defects. If this skills trend continues, we will see a critical shortage of appropriately trained technical engineers across many fields including telecommunications, construction, robotics and artificial intelligence, renewable energy, computer science and aerospace,” said Professor Hoffman.

“A lack of coherency in linking education to skills needs is evident in the critical field of STEM disciplines. Technology skills are increasingly related to newly created jobs and those of the future,  yet overall we have seen in recent years domestic engineering student numbers falling by around 12 per cent compared to a rise of around 44 per cent for international students.”

The UNSW ‘Skills of the Future’ survey found the community does not want to redress the shortage of engineering graduates by bringing in these skills from overseas. The solution, according the findings, is to introduce engineering technology subjects into high school, addressing a gap where students gain a feel for science but are not exposed to the link with technology and engineering, and for the government to fund more university places in engineering fields.

“There is a gap in our school STEM education system where students are exposed to foundational science (S) and maths (M) but not the link to technology (T) and engineering (E), where the drastic skills shortages lie. We urgently need to raise awareness of and engage the T and E in STEM,” Professor Hoffman said.

“This is evidenced by the fact that twice the number of students then enter science degrees than engineering at university. The low number of domestic technology and engineering students compared to the skills demand is also partly a decision of universities.

“Government funding is allocated essentially equally to teach science and engineering, but universities allocate nearly twice as many places to science and typically provide easier pathways for entry. That’s understandable, but we need to do more at school and university level to help Australia redress its chronic shortage of high-tech skilled workers, on whom our industries are increasingly relying.”

In light of these findings, Professor Hoffman is calling for a high-level roundtable discussion by government, business and the education sector to tackle the problem and develop a plan of action.

He sees three key opportunities:

  1. Expose school children, especially girls, to high-tech skills training and job pathways.
  2. Expanded government funding for engineering-related higher education at universities and TAFE.
  3. Stronger collaboration in providing and linking education and jobs skills between business and education providers.

To illustrate the current imbalance between school student study areas and employment prospects, higher education sector figures show the number of students in science-related subjects far outweighs those in engineering and IT-related subjects, yet after university graduation only 64.6 per cent of science students get full time work after four months, compared to 83.1 per cent for engineering.

When asked about the most important knowledge areas for the skills of the future, the survey respondents put law, business, accounting and marketing last, and put the highest at trades, science/medical, technical engineering followed by computer science.

Other key survey findings were:

  • 2 per cent say future essential job skills will involve creativity, problem solving skills, being able to collaborate and digital intelligence.
  • The main reasons for a lack of women in engineering are lack of exposure at school to its career opportunities, a male dominated culture in the profession, and societal expectations biased in the profession towards males.

“Whilst engineering degrees do require some industry job placement, not all degrees at university offer this and both the community and business feel this is essential,” he said. “Most people told us courses jointly run by universities and industry was the best way to meet the skills of the future for Australia and they also felt there was currently a disconnect between what is studied at university and the types of jobs our country needs.

“We must change our education system to tackle this and we can’t just keep bringing in overseas trained people and students to fill our job knowledge gaps. We must tackle this issue domestically by looking through all of the links in the chain.”

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