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The Future of Work: Meeting the Growing Demand for STEM Professionals

Smarter Writer
Smarter Team

A team of business and technology journalists and editors that write to help Australia’s community of small and medium businesses access the technology and know-how that helps solve problems and create opportunities.

Smarter Writer
Smarter Team

A team of business and technology journalists and editors that write to help Australia’s community of small and medium businesses access the technology and know-how that helps solve problems and create opportunities.

Highlights
  • Technology transforms business models and is relevant to small business regardless of industry.   
  • Australia’s growing demand for STEM skilled workers outstrips supply, making access costly.    
  • Diversity drives innovation, yet women make up just 16 per cent of the STEM workforce.

Small businesses are increasingly reliant on digital technology, but there remains a shortage of skilled workers to meet growing demand. A concerted effort is needed to nurture the next generation of STEM professionals.

Australia’s STEM workforce also suffers from a lack of diversity, including an ongoing gender imbalance. Women currently comprise only 16 per cent of university and VET graduates in STEM, which is why there are now a range of programs across Australia actively seeking to redress this imbalance.

A female technician inspects a circuit board. A number of programs seek to increase the number of women enrolling in STEM courses.

But why should small businesses care about a STEM-skilled workforce (science, technology, engineering, mathematics)? 

Consider many of the technologies you use every day in your business – from the code that runs your website and the software that handles your admin to the devices you and your customers use almost ubiquitously every day; all of these require skilled workers to build, maintain and continually innovate and iterate the next version.

“The US is, surprisingly, somewhat behind Australia in the way Americans teach and learn about computer science. In Australia, while it’s only recently become part of the curriculum, it was always offered as an option, an elective, and was offered in most schools,” says Heather Catchpole, managing editor and co-founder of Refraction Media, a publisher of several magazines and resources dedicated to STEM education, including Careers with Code, Careers with Science and Careers with Engineering.  

As the demand continues to increase, and as the pool of skilled workers struggles to keep up, the costs of accessing those skills goes up too. This could make innovation harder for small businesses to achieve, while the pace of technological change makes the need for innovation ever more important.

This problem isn’t exclusive to digital startups or other small businesses where the technology is the product. For example, a shop with access to the right coding skills might develop and implement a more efficient e-commerce system to gain the advantage over less efficient competitors. And then there’s the growing Internet of Things and the rise of automated systems, creating myriad opportunities for businesses of any size to develop new efficiencies, or even entire new business models.

Inspiring the Next Generation

When Australia’s smartest science thinkers tell you education is vital to the nation’s prosperity, it pays to listen. That’s the message delivered by Innovation and Science Australia (ISA) chair Bill Ferris.

When Ferris launched his board’s landmark report in January 2018 – Australia 2030: Prosperity Through Innovation – it put education at the top of the list of strategic targets for immediate action, with a specific focus on the STEM subjects1.

Education is essential to the innovation mission for STEM – and that means for everyone in the Australian population: all genders, ethnicities, even age groups. Diverse teams regularly deliver stronger and more effective results. And with science-based research so critical to the future, society is short changing itself if women, for example, are underrepresented in their participation.

To address this, the Federal Government has earmarked $1.3 million over four years to expand the Superstars of STEM program, which in its early stages has already engaged directly with more than 7,500 high school students and begun a strong social media campaign.

The program is also in the process of appointing 60 outstanding women working in STEM as ambassadors for the program to share their passion for their work with the aim of inspiring others.

Not-for-profit group the Tech Girls Movement, meanwhile, has a mission to get 10,000 more women into STEM courses by 2020 and currently runs a “Tech Girls are Superheroes” program.

Other initiatives focus on affirmative action. In August 2018, the University of Adelaide announced it was advertising for eight positions in the Faculty of Engineering, Computer and Mathematical Sciences and they would be open only to female applicants.

The faculty’s deputy dean for performance and infrastructure, Professor Peter Ashman, says women hold just 16 per cent of academic positions in the faculty, compared with 40 per cent across the University as a whole.

“One of the real issues here is the lack of female role models in academia,” says Ashman. “So, we think that having some more fantastic female academics working in these disciplines can only help in every way.

“We know from talking to female students that it is sometimes a challenge for them to predominantly see men in front of classes acting as mentors, and we think that seeing more women in these roles will help female students look more positively on their studies.”

Computer Science + X = ?

Catchpole and publisher Karen Taylor-Brown are already influential female role models for STEM. Both combined science and communications in their tertiary studies and used these twin passions to launch the Sydney-based Refraction Media. In 2015, Refraction Media was a finalist in the Best Startup category of the Telstra Small Business Awards; while Karen Taylor-Brown was a finalist for Telstra Business Woman of the Year. As a bonus, Refraction Media also won Small Publisher of the Year at the Publish Australia Awards.

Its flagship magazine Careers with Code launched in 2014 and quickly attracted the attention of Google US. Google immediately understood the potential of Careers with Code to engage with students in their mid-to-late teens and asked if Catchpole and Taylor-Brown could produce a US edition to help deliver its message of CS + X.

Computational science (CS) attempts to find solutions to complex problems by using advanced computing techniques. CS + X seeks to apply computational science to specific disciplines, where X can represent all kinds of things. 

As Google describes on its blog, “CS + retail = online shopping, CS + finance = ‘fin tech’ (think online banking, personal finance management, etc.), CS + music = products like ‘Pandora’, CS + health = fitness products like ‘Fit Bit’, etc.”2

As you can see, many of the technologies and even business models we work with today have their roots in CS + X.

As the Refraction Media team talked to Google US about the CS + X narrative, they also discovered Google’s core goal was to increase the visibility of role models across cultural sectors; African American and Hispanic among them. “And of course, promoting opportunities for women,” Catchpole says. The same mission also drives Refraction Media.

“When we create the platform and the stories it is really to showcase a dream world and say, ‘this is what it should look like – 50-50 male-female, people from rural or city backgrounds, or people with disabilities who have a fascinating insight into technology because the technology is having to be adapted to work for them.”

The US edition of Careers with Code was an immediate success. As Catchpole says: “While Google is the main sponsor of the magazine, we also connected with the National Centre for Women in Technology, with Code.org and so on. It was also distributed through 4-H, a global youth education initiative. Within a month or so of print it was in the hands of 95,000 kids around the US. They were distributed at Harvard. I was just like, ‘Wow!’.”

What neither Refraction Media nor Google US could know was that then-US President Barack Obama would choose to launch his Computer Science for All initiative in January 2016. It was perfectly timed to put the spotlight on Refraction Media’s new title.

Computer Science for All was like a White Paper from the US Government saying: ‘This is an issue in the US, we need to do more and it’s really important for all US kids,” Catchpole says. “And we were one of the resources listed in a press release that came from the White House.”

These days Refraction Media gathers all of its relevant titles under the headline brand Careers with STEM, which supports not only the four STEM titles but also resources for students and teachers. Even so, the carefully calibrated focus of Refraction’s co-founders is, as always, on the future. 

Says Taylor-Brown: “We have just launched a new app called STEM Careers, which helps people find their favourite discipline, combine it with their ‘X’ and come up with a range of degrees and careers.

“We also have another brand called Science Meets Business, which is more to do with researchers and industry working together to innovate and commercialise so it kind of fits in with the national innovation strategy.”

When you’re running a small business, it’s easy to get caught up in the everyday busyness of business that thinking too far into the future – particularly future technology – can seem like an unwelcome distraction. If anything, rather than making STEM careers a lower priority for small business, this makes the need for more STEM education even more important. That way, as technology continues to pervade every aspect of our lives, you can still hire or outsource the necessary talent to implement the future in your business. 

 

Footnotes

1 Australia 2030: Prosperity Through Innovation, Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, November 2017.

2 CS + X: What’s Your X?, Google Australia Blog,13 June 2014.    

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