How to build homegown solutions to the technology skills shortage

A three-point action plan from UNSW's Mark Hoffman proposes ways to increase tech skills in the Australian workforce and reduce our reliance on imported expertise.

A majority of Australians believe the continued and increasing need for high-technology skills in the workforce should be addressed through homegrown education and not by foreign skilled immigration, according to a new attitudinal survey.Professor Mark Hoffman - Dean of UNSW Engineering

Compounding the current critical shortage of high-tech qualified workers, Australia-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.

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

Skills shortages affecting industry

UNSW Sydney Dean of Engineering, Professor Mark Hoffman, said the current shortage of engineers and related high-tech professionals was putting pressure on core domestic industries, including in residential development which had 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, who was one of the experts appointed by the NSW government to inquire into the Opal Tower crisis.

“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 and, yet overall we have seen in recent years domestic engineering student numbers falling by around 12% compared to a rise of around 44% for international students.”

The UNSW ‘Skills of the Future’ survey finds the community does not want to redress the shortage of engineering graduates by bringing in these skills from overseas. The solution, according to 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.

Bridging the gap in education

“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 which our industries are increasingly relying on.”

Three steps to progress

In light of these findings, Professor Hoffman is calling for a high-level roundtable discussion by government, business and the education sector to 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 TAFEs.
  3. Stronger collaboration in providing and linking education and jobs skills between business and education providers.

Illustrating the 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% of science students have full-time work after four months compared with 83.1% 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 said the most important were trades, science/medical, technical engineering followed by computer science.

Other key survey findings are:

  • 78.2% 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.

“While 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,” Professor Hoffman 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.”

Notes:

1. The survey of 12 questions was of 1484 people nationally by uCommunications Pty Ltd. Telephone numbers and the person within the household were selected at random. The results have been weighted by gender and age to reflect the population according to ABS figures. Please note that due to rounding, not all tables necessarily total 100% and subtotals may also vary.

2. Other figures used for this release:

2017 Engineering student commencements – all types of student undergraduate, PhD, Masters

 

 2014

 2017

 % change

 Total

 34864

 38121

 +9.3%

 Domestics

 21456

 18811

 -12.3%

 International

 13408

 19310

 +44%

 % International

 38.5%

 50.7%

 

 

Domestic entrants into undergraduate university programs across Australia

 

 2014

 2017

 % change

 Engineering

 16949

 15382

 -9.2%

 Science

 29890

 31666

 +5.9%

 

2018 QILT Graduate outcomes

 Study area

 Full-time employment four months after   undergraduate graduation

 Engineering

 83.1%

 Science

 64.6%

 Comp sci & IT

 73.2%

 

NSW 2018 HSC enrolments

 HSC Subject

 No. students

 % male

 Engineering technology

 1893

 93

 Industrial tech

 4952

 85

 Software Design and   Development

 561

 89

 Biology

 19057

 

 Chemistry

 6046

 54

 Physics

 7265

 76

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