Why is STEM important?

STEM skills are crucial for Australia’s changing future

The world is changing around us. Digital technology has become a core part of our everyday lives. Advances in technology impact everything, especially the world of work. Entire job sectors are emerging or disappearing, and workforces are rushing to keep up with change.

Automation and globalisation are changing the way we think about, and define, careers. Employment is becoming fluid, and people will go from having one profession to several in their working life. These may be entirely different roles, across entirely different sectors.

As the world of work changes, we will need to change our skills to match. The gap between the knowledge generated in the education system and the skills demanded by employers and individuals is widening. Overcoming these limitations requires a priority focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), including the development of workplace skills in STEM. Future careers will also rely heavily on ‘21st century skills’ — for example, critical thinking, creativity, cultural awareness, collaboration and problem-solving. When done well, STEM education complements the development of 21st century skills. It’s predicted that future workers will spend more than twice as much time on job tasks requiring science, maths and critical thinking than today.

It’s vital that Australia keeps pace with technological change to advance its economy and prosperity. Without adequate STEM skills and understanding in Australia, there is a risk that companies searching for these skills will be forced to set up elsewhere. But if we prepare Australians for the jobs of the future, we will enjoy a thriving cycle of jobs and opportunities.

STEM learning is also important for students in their everyday life in our contemporary world, with the rise of new technologies in biomedicine, microfabrication, robotics and artificial intelligence. The ability to understand and apply data, and develop solutions to complex problems, will be important life skills.

Australia is not keeping up with the need for STEM

The National STEM School Education Strategy 2016-2026 was agreed by all education ministers in December 2015 through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Education Council. The national strategy supports a long-term change agenda aiming to ensure that students have a stronger foundation in STEM and are inspired to take on more challenging STEM subjects.

There are many reasons to be concerned about Australia’s STEM activity and what this means for our future:

  • The number of school students studying STEM in later secondary (Year 11 and 12) has flat-lined at around 10% or less.
  • School students’ science and maths results are declining or stagnating.
  • Australia is slipping down the international ranking tables as other countries improve. In 2003, 4 countries or economies significantly outperformed Australia in PISA mathematics. In 2018, 23 did.
  • Around 40% of Australia’s Year 7 to 10 mathematics classes are taught without a qualified mathematics teacher.
  • Australian students don’t understand the importance of STEM, or STEM career opportunities, until it’s too late.
  • Industry conserns about their future workforce include skill shortages and recruitment challenges that risk the future of work.
  • Environmental, social and economic change presents complex challenges that will need sustainable and connected solutions.

We need a collective effort to change Australia’s future in STEM

Industry and education both play a key role in changing Australia’s future. They can:

  • Support students to understand the realities and needs of the STEM workforce.
  • Prepare students for the big career challenges and opportunities ahead.

Schools, businesses and other groups have already started working together to create STEM programs to improve student outcomes in STEM. But there is more work to do. Together, industry and education can work to improve Australia’s STEM future.

There are lots of others who can make important contributions, too. Many not-for-profit groups and community organisations support STEM education, or would like to. Parents also play a critical role in shaping the attitudes of young people and helping them succeed.

Want to know more?

Research Reports