How many engineers does it take to change the future?
Some people, such as the Grattan Institute’s higher education analyst Andrew Norton, want you to believe that we already have more engineers than we need.
Norton disparages the view that Australia will need more graduates in engineering and the physical sciences if we are to broaden our economic base and invest in industries that create future jobs.
In his budget reply speech, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten announced a Labor Government will offer 100,000 HECS-free degree scholarships to students in the so-called STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Norton responded by arguing there is an oversupply of engineering and science graduates in the job market.
It’s clear that supposed experts don’t spend enough time with the people who actually employ engineers and science graduates, because they have no doubt that Australia needs to build its stock of STEM skills.
The president of the Business Council of Australia, Catherine Livingstone, told the National Press Club last month that “an estimated 75 per cent of the fastest growing occupations, including those in the creative industries and humanities, will require STEM-related skills and knowledge”.
“By STEM skills I mean maths and science, yes, but also computer coding, computational thinking, problem solving and design thinking.
“As it stands in Australia, however, the gap between the digital literacy of our young people and that of our competitor nations is increasing.
“If we want increased productivity and participation, we need urgently to embark on a 10-year plan to close that gap.”
Livingstone is not an isolated voice. In March the Australian Industry Group warned that “our relative decline of STEM skills is holding back our national economy and causing real frustration for employers”.
And in September last year the chief scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, issued a report in which he deplored Australia’s lack of commitment to producing graduates in STEM disciplines.
Professor Chubb pointed out that globally successful economies were characterised by strong basic research; deep connections to global science; a culture of risk and openness to new ideas; career paths that allow researchers to move from academia to industry and back; and, a STEM-literate population generating a reliable supply of STEM graduates.
By those measures, Australia is not doing well.
In last year’s Global Innovation Index, although Australia ranked 17th overall out of 143 countries, we were placed only 81st as a converter of raw innovation capability into new knowledge, better products, creative industries and growing wealth.
That low ranking is bound up with another: Australia is placed 73rd out the 143 for the proportion of engineering and science graduates in the total population.
If Australia’s innovation capabilities are to improve, it can’t be done without increasing our stock of STEM skills, as Livingstone has urged.
That means increasing the number of engineering and science graduates. But it also means encouraging young Australians from groups that have been under-represented in engineering and technological disciplines, yet who have the talent to succeed, to take them up as careers.
Only 15 per cent of Australia’s engineers, for example, are women. The 100,000 science and engineering scholarships are intended to provide an incentive to change that.
They are also intended to attract more bright and eager young people to teach maths and the physical sciences, communicating their enthusiasm to future generations of engineers and scientists.
When the chief scientist commissioned Deloitte Access Economics to survey employers about their need for STEM workers, more than half said they would need more STEM-qualified professionals, technicians and trades people in the next five to ten years.
Employers dealing with the real economy understand that the future needs of the nation and currently fashionable degree choices are not necessarily the same thing.
No one pretends that the present job market is rosy for graduates in any discipline. But this is not the time for Australia to reduce its commitment to the education and training of graduates in engineering and related technological disciplines.
As Chubb noted this week, Australia tends to focus too narrowly on the present employment profile for last year’s graduates, rather than grasping (as other countries do) that the employment profile of the future will be different.
Labor understands that we must prepare our education system for that difference in order to create the jobs of the future. It is a task that must begin in primary schools, which is why Bill Shorten talked in his budget reply about the need to teach coding to all students.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in contrast, has flippantly described this as a scheme to put 11-year-olds to work. That’s how little his government thinks about the jobs of the future.
They do not grasp that without sufficient engineering and technical talent and expertise, Australians will cease to innovate.
The existing industrial base will wither and there will be nothing to take its place. The industrial capacity we have will not be redirected to new forms of production and new markets.
If Australia doesn’t have a vision, our opportunities will shrink as the rest of the world powers ahead -- and the brighter future we all envisage for our children and grandchildren will be put at risk.
This opinion piece was first published in the Business Spectator on Friday, 29, May, 2015.