We’ve experimented with a bunch of naff names here in Australia. In the 1990s, Bob Hawke wanted us to become the clever country. Two decades later, Malcolm Turnbull aspired to make us an innovation nation.
Despite our apparent inability to find a sufficiently sticky catchphrase, we’ve spent decades going full steam on Stem. We are still being advised that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) skills are crucial for Australia’s changing future. Highly skilled, highly technical jobs in knowledge-driven fields are surely going to be our ticket to increased productivity and prosperity.
Our best and brightest have been listening, and are taking action.
In recent years, enrolments in management and commerce have declined. There has been a slow but steady increase in the number of students starting in engineering and technology. There’s even been an uptick in enrolments in “natural and physical sciences” – including maths, physics, chemistry and biology.
What happens to these students after they graduate? The annual Graduate Outcomes Survey, conducted by the Social Research Centre, provides some insight.
The survey suggests most university graduates – Stem included – get jobs promptly after graduation. But there are differences between disciplines.
Despite all our encouragement for students to study natural and physical sciences, these students are actually among those least likely to get a job.
Only 86% of science graduates in 2022 reported having found employment within four months of graduating. Despite the hype, when it comes to getting a job, science and technology graduates fare only slightly better than “starving artists”.
The market factor
To understand why, one should look to the actual demand in the market.
A graduate can get two types of jobs. A job that is directly relevant to their qualifications and skills, or one that is not. Most graduates, one assumes, would prefer the former, holding other factors constant.
So an engineer wants to work as an engineer, perhaps even in an engineering firm. No problem. As of February 2023, we had over 200,000 people employed as engineers across Australia. There are over 20,000 employing engineering firms who might like to hire them. Projections are that demand for engineers will increase.
It’s a different story for scientists and mathematicians.
There are around 10,000 working chemists – one for every 20 engineers. Then there are just 12,400 mathematicians, actuaries and statisticians. And all together, there are just 2,207 employing businesses in scientific research services.
There will be growth in these professions, and demand for more workers. Official projections are that there will be 128,400 science professionals (including mathematicians, statisticians and actuaries, excluding vets) by 2026. That’s 4,000 more people than are currently employed in these roles. Yet today, there are 127,000 domestic undergraduates enrolled in “natural and physical sciences” – maths, physics, chemistry and biology.
Perhaps we are hoping that these students take their skills to other industries and jobs. Why couldn’t a mathematician apply their skills as an actuary, an engineer, an accountant or a teacher? All use mathematical skills and reasoning. Actuaries use statistical techniques to help with risk modelling. Engineers calculate loads – how much weight a bridge can hold, for example. Accountants spend hours on balancing books. Secondary school maths teachers pass some of this knowledge on to others.
Even if you assume that students would take the opportunity, our professions are, largely, too vocationally narrow-minded to let them in. In Australia, each of these jobs require specialised qualifications to get into professional bodies. Professional accreditation, in turn, is often a prerequisite for getting hired. It’s certainly possible – but it will require another year, at least, of training.
Employers who do give our scientists a shot will find that they’re technically excellent.
The soft skills
However, technical skills aren’t everything – especially if you’re hiring a scientist to be, say, a recruiter. Across the board, the most frequently demanded skills are soft skills, like time management and customer service. This might go some way to explaining why overall employer satisfaction with science students, in particular, is low compared with other disciplines.
So – Australia’s Stem story is nuanced. Some Stem skills, including in coding and engineering, are in high demand. It’s all good and well to continue encouraging students in this direction. But the picture is far less rosy for graduates in sciences and mathematics.
We are, and will continue to be, a clever country. But we shouldn’t continue peddling “Stem” degrees just because the catchphrase has a nice ring to it. Let’s get the funding and incentives for science and research right first, in both the private and public sectors. Then we can continue to encourage – and make the most of – our smart scientists.