10 percent of Australians are STEM qualified: Chief Scientist

In his latest report, Australia's Chief Scientist has found that as of 2011, 2.3 million Australians held STEM qualifications, with men comprising 84 percent of the STEM-qualified total.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The Office of the Chief Scientist released a report on Thursday that found as of 2011, there were 2.3 million people in Australia -- approximately 10 percent of the population -- with qualifications in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

According to Australia's Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel, the report, Australia's STEM Workforce, shows that studying STEM opens up countless job opportunities.

"The most striking finding in my mind is the range of occupations that people with STEM qualifications have pursued," Finkel said.

"We have people with physics doctorates working as financial analysts, we have chemistry graduates running farms and making wine, we have IT graduates planning cities. There are no limits on what a STEM graduate can do, and we shouldn't impose them."

The report [PDF] was compiled using data from the country's 2011 census, with Finkel saying it establishes a benchmark for comparison with census data that will be collected later this year.

Of the STEM-qualified population, approximately two thirds held Vocational Education and Training (VET) qualifications, while one third were higher education graduates with bachelor degrees or higher, the report states.

"Australia's future will rely on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics -- disciplines at the core of innovation," the report says. "Our businesses will rely on STEM to compete in the emerging sectors that new technologies will create, as well as in the existing sectors which new technologies will transform."

Out of each of the STEM fields, mathematics was the one with the fewest qualified people, with little over 27,000 individuals.

Between 2006 and 2011, the number of STEM-qualified individuals in Australia grew by 15 percent, a trend Finkel hopes will continue.

"When I look to that future I see a world of opportunity for Australians with STEM training," he said. "I see a STEM-powered economy that Australians can forge, if we have the confidence and the capability combined."

According to the report, the eastern states dominated the rest of the country, with just under one third of STEM-qualified people residing in New South Wales, a further quarter in Victoria, and one fifth in Queensland.

The percentage of people in Australia with post-secondary qualifications born outside of Australia was 35 percent, with the report saying the proportion varied across the different STEM fields.

The report also found that across the total STEM-qualified population, 49 percent were aged 45 years or older, with the spread varying across the fields with 25 percent of IT-qualified people aged 45 years or older, and 55 percent over the age of 45 in engineering.

When it came to unemployment, 3.7 percent of STEM-qualified individuals were without a job.

For those with a job, the most common industry of employment for STEM-qualified people was in manufacturing, followed by professionals, scientific and technical services, and construction.

"Our workforce will require specialised skills in STEM as well as high STEM literacy across the board to sustain economic growth," the report says.

"STEM skills are the lifeblood of emerging knowledge-based industries and provide competitive advantage to established industries, such as agriculture, resources, and healthcare."

The report also said that those with qualifications in mathematics were most likely to be employed as educators or in training roles whilst manufacturing was the top industry for engineering qualification holders.

The largest increase in the number of employed people amongst the STEM fields from 2006 to 2011 was in IT, which experienced an increase of 25 percent.

"Strong performance in STEM is also critical to our education sector -- now Australia's fourth largest export industry," the report said. "An education in STEM also fosters a range of generic and quantitative skills and ways of thinking that enable individuals to see and grasp opportunities."

The report also found that fewer than one-third of STEM university graduates were female, with physics and astronomy, as well as engineering having even lower proportions of female graduates. Biological sciences and environmental studies graduates were evenly split between the genders, however.

In the VET sector, only 9 percent of those with STEM qualifications were women.

Finkel said that even more worrying than the gender imbalance in some STEM fields was the pay-gap between men and women in all STEM fields. He said the differences cannot be fully explained by having children or by the increased proportion of women working part-time.

Also on Thursday, Assistant Minister for Science Karen Andrews chaired a roundtable in Brisbane on the Government's Expanding Opportunities for Women in STEM and Entrepreneurship initiative.

The AU$13 million initiative was announced in December and forms part of the federal government's AU$1.1 billion National Science and Innovation Agenda.

According to Andrews, the initiative will provide AU$13 million over the next four years to boost the participation of girls and women in both STEM education and STEM-based careers.

"We know too few girls are studying maths and science at school, and those who do still face significant obstacles to building sustainable, long-term careers that make use of their STEM skills and knowledge," she said.

"What we need is action. Fortunately, there are a number of exciting and proven initiatives that the National Innovation and Science Agenda can build on."

The funding supports an expansion of the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot to cover more science and research institutions as well as the establishment of a new initiative under the Male Champions of Change model, which Andrews said will provide funding for projects targeted at girls and women in schools, universities, the research sector, STEM-based industries, and the startup and entrepreneurial sectors.

The SAGE pilot launched in September, with the government reporting that over 30 research bodies are already involved. SAGE will assess and accredit the gender equity practices and policies in Australian science organisations. It will also drive change to see more women involved in such sectors.

According to the government, 55 percent of STEM graduates are female, but only one in four IT graduates and one in 10 engineering graduates are women.

It said women occupy fewer than one in five senior researcher positions at universities and research institutions in the country and account for approximately one quarter of the overall STEM workforce.

"We want to be a national culture of innovation, of risk takers, because as we do that, we grow the whole ecosystem of innovation right across the economy," Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said previously. "As we become more experienced, more innovative, more agile, and more prepared to take on risks we become a culture of ideas because it is the ideas boom which will secure our prosperity in the future."

Speaking in Sydney on Wednesday, Kate Burleigh, Intel Australia managing director, said it was the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) that was hindering the nation's challenge of getting more students involved in STEM.

She said it was obvious that Australia has a crisis in terms of not enough students adopting STEM-based subjects. Burleigh said that her year 11 daughter believes it is not practical for her to study STEM subjects whilst playing for the best score in her ATAR, a view shared by Canberra Girls Grammar School year 12 student Laura Johnston.

Johnston said venturing down the humanities path was a smarter and more informed decision when it came to her ATAR, adding that she knew she would get better grades if she did not participate in STEM-related subjects.

"It's all to do with my ATAR," she said.

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