Prof Mark Hoffman: "We urgently need to raise awareness..."

The majority of Australians believe the continued and increasing need for high-technology skills in the workforce should be addressed through domestic 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 the 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 with 64 per cent believing 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 says the current shortage of engineers and related high-tech professionals is putting pressure on core domestic industries, including in residential development, which has seen defects cause people to move out of their homes.

“The shortage of skilled engineers and trades people 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,” says Prof 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 and, 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,” says Prof Hoffman.

“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.”

Higher education sector figures currently 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 included 78.2 per cent saying that future essential job skills will involve creativity, problem-solving skills, being able to collaborate and digital intelligence.

And the main reasons for a lack of women in engineering are perceived as a 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.

Prof Hoffman concludes: “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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