The shortage of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills within the workforce has been the source of growing local disquiet since the closing years of the last century. It was then, as the first of the children of the science-led space age began to approach retirement that the lack of qualified replacement workforce skills began to garner attention.
The issue was raised again with the release of Lifting our Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) Skills, a 2013 report from the Australian Industry Group.The study noted that an estimated three quarters of Australia’s fastest growing occupations require STEM skills, yet approximately one quarter of job applicants do not have the necessary skills and the same number lack workplace experience.
The issue is far from unique to Australia. All across the western world, the ageing population and a declining interest in STEM careers are causing concern among governments and industry. How can companies and economies continue to grow if the requisite skills aren’t there to keep the wheels of industry in motion?
To add to the problem, advancements in technology and changes to business practices are raising new challenges and creating demand for new skills. It’s arguable that now, more than ever before, workforce education and training have become ongoing necessities.
A problem with many solutions
It is widely acknowledged that to solve the STEM problem, action will need to be taken on a number of fronts. First and foremost, at a national and state level, we need to encourage more graduates with the right training. To do this, we will need to make STEM careers more attractive. From early childhood on, within our infants and primary schools we need to engage our youngsters in maths and science, just as we already do for literacy.
As students reach move from secondary to tertiary education, we must also find a way of combining learning and training with greater workplace experience, perhaps by expanding our vision of the apprenticeship model, so that our graduates are more experienced, better prepared and more attractive to potential employers.
While some action is already under way, all of the proposed measures will take time and it will be years before we start to see any significant increase in the number of STEM graduates coming through the education system. In the meantime, businesses need a solution now. Therefore, they must plan; they must be prepared to undertake their own initiatives to source the right people and to encourage employees as they build a corporate skills bank.
Strategies for companies
A skills gap analysis is essential if an organisation is to understand what skills it currently has, the skills it requires, and if it is to have any chance of planning skills development for future needs.
When it comes to employing new skills, the shortage of appropriate candidates means that companies need to make their employment offers stand out if they want to attract the best possible people. Competitive remuneration is a good start, but flexibility in hours and work location can also play a major role. Other factors that may tip a candidate’s decision in a given direction include the ability to work with leading technologies, access to mentors, training courses or an allowance of time for external study, and the very nature of the work challenge.
To increase skills levels among existing employees, companies should encourage study by offering incentives such as bonuses, co-payment of course fees and/or the offer of study time for approved courses.
Contractors help manage the workload
Encouraging staff to undertake additional training almost inevitably brings change to work hours and workloads due to employee time being diverted to classes, study or exams. Organisations will need to accommodate the changes (within reason), and this is where white collar contractors (referred to as Independent Professional or IPros by Entity Solutions) can help.
IPros provide an overflow workforce that is available to step in when employees are engaged in training. Whether the employee is attending a one-off private course or chooses ongoing study at a tertiary institution, the IPro can be there for the duration to ensure none of the day-to-day work suffers.
A well-chosen IPro will also bring new expertise in systems, methodologies or practices. When this is the case, rather than leaving it to chance, the employer should consider how best to capitalise on the expertise, perhaps by formalising a skills transfer or mentoring role as part of the contracting relationship. Such an arrangement adds value and challenge for the IPro at the same time as benefiting employees and the employer.
Specialised help when needed
One of the biggest problems facing employers right now is the loss of senior employees due to retirement. These are the employees who may have several decades’ worth of experience and knowledge about the company, its clients and the industry. They are people who can’t easily be replaced, especially by a new graduate.
Once again, a seasoned IPro, can help fill the gap, guiding the remaining staff until they are ready to operate as a functional team on their own. In some instances, IPros provide mentoring to the chosen successor, helping the person to gain the confidence and experience that will allow them to grow into the role.
In the years to come, industry groups and governments will continue to refine their ideas on how to best address the STEM skills gap. New incentives will emerge to encourage students to take up studies in STEM. The way we teach these subjects will change due to increased industry input. And hopefully, we will see a growing number of STEM graduates coming out of Australia’s tertiary institutions.
Until that time however, businesses need to plan more actively for the skills they wish to acquire and develop. They will need to invest directly in education and training of their staff, and they will need to find new, flexible and creative ways to fulfill their workforce needs. As they do so, experienced IPros are likely to become an important part of the skills development solution.
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