Tackling the STEM skills gap

BHP chief of staff Laura Tyler with students at the World Science Festival

A report by Engineers Australia has found a continued decline in the number of students choosing science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, creating uncertainty in Australia’s future ability to remain competitive in the sector.

The report highlighted a drop in the number of high school students doing intermediate and advanced maths. In 2001, the number of young men in intermediate maths reduced from 38.6 per cent to 28.4 per cent in 2015, while for young women, this dropped from 30.9 per cent in 2001 to 20.6 per cent in 2015.

In terms of advanced maths, the number declined from 15.9 per cent to 11.5 per cent for young men; and from 8.3 per cent down to 6.2 per cent for young women.

The report emphasised that participation in Year 12 maths has been getting lower and lower, sparking concerns of a continued downward trend. An even greater concern is the low number of women participating in maths.

This declining trend was also found in physics, where 21 per cent of young men studied the subject in 2015, compared to 22.3 per cent in 2012. These figures were even lower for women, with only 5.9 per cent of young women studying physics in 2015, compared to 6.5 in 2012.

“The trends for participation are of serious concern because they show a continuation of declines that stretch back several decades and show no sign of stabilising,” the report said.

Several programs and initiatives have been created by various organisations in a bid to combat the dwindling number of students entering the STEM sector, and one of these events is the World Science Festival (WSF).

The New York-based, week-long festival, aims to showcase science research and technologies to general audiences.

It was held in Brisbane for the first time last year, strengthening Australia’s role in boosting the STEM sector.

One of the speakers during this year’s festival was Laura Tyler, chief of staff and head of geoscience at BHP Billiton.

Tyler held an ‘In Conversation with Laura Tyler’ event, where she spoke to 200 high school students – including a contingent of Chinese students that included the festival in their schooling program – about the benefits of entering the STEM sector.

In light of the alarming statistics from Engineers Australia, Tyler said one of the main reasons the company was involved in the WSF was so they could fill the skills shortage in Australia’s STEM sector.

“We need to ensure we are getting the work for the future we need so that the whole of Australia and also BHP gets the workforce with the necessary skills that are gained through a strong STEM study,” Tyler told Australian Mining.

“We need that pipeline of scientists in the university, not only to collaborate with other universities and other researchers, but to make sure that we are producing new scientists and engineers that we’re going to need for the future.”

Tyler believes one of the biggest reasons that may hinder students from joining the STEM sector is because they regard it as too challenging.

“I think they view STEM as maybe being too hard sometimes or that its easier to do something like English,” she said.

“The physics and maths really drop away in grade 11 and 12 and it’s a major concern.”

Tyler added that the work being done at the WSF ties in with the initiatives BHP has been implementing over several years to promote interest and participation in STEM subjects and related programs.

BHP has committed $55 million over five years to Australia’s STEM sector through four main programs including the Choose Maths program; the Indigenous STEM project; the BHP Billiton Science and Engineering Awards and the Australian Science Olympiads.

The Choose Maths program, done in collaboration with the Australian Mathematical Science Institute began in February 2015 and will run until March 2019. The program is designed to alter the negative perception of maths and includes a national ‘women in mathematics’ campaign, providing professional development for teachers at 120 schools nationwide and an awards program for both students and teachers.

The Indigenous STEM project, established together with the CSIRO, is designed to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students through their education and employment. The five-year program features six elements including a summer school for excellence in technology and science; Indigenous STEM awards; and science pathways for Indigenous communities. Currently, 3442 students have taken part in the project, with an estimated 12,670 students expected to join over the life of the project.

In conjunction with the CSIRO, BHP also holds the Science and Engineering Awards for students who have conducted practical research projects using scientific or engineering processes. Tyler said BHP had been a key partner of the awards for 35 years, emphasising its commitment to bolstering the STEM skills gap.

BHP has also supported the Science Olympiads, challenging high school science students through exams and competitions.

Around 900 schools participate in the STEM programs offered by BHP.

“These are all focused on school kids and feeding the pipeline to encourage them into university to study sciences,” Tyler said.

Reaching a gender balance

Another big challenge for the STEM sector is recruiting more women. According to the Engineers Australia report, the number of female engineers has historically been low, with only 11.8 per cent of women in the engineering labour force, and 9.7 per cent employed in it.

Mid last year BHP launched an ambitious goal to have half its workforce women by 2025.  However, Tyler said this phrase was not used within the company, with focus instead on gender balance.

“We’re aiming for gender balance, which isn’t necessarily a fully-fit statistic, maybe it’s 60 by 45, 55. We’re aiming for that gender balance and we tend to use that phrase rather than saying we’re going to get 50,” she said.

Tyler also said the company was looking at ways it recruits people, where it sources people from and the opportunities it can bring to enhance diversity. She highlighted that BHP’s integrated remote operations centre (IROC) in Brisbane has around 40 per cent women.

Tyler added that it was more difficult to recruit women in older and more established operations, compared to new projects that have more of a chance to have diversity.

Nonetheless, there has been an improvement in having women on site, with Tyler saying the company is seeing a drop in the turnover of women over the last few months.

“We will continue to look at how to make the environment more inclusive, more open toward different types of people and different opinions, and we’re keen to look at the recruits and the recruitment process,” Tyler said.

A last word

With the STEM sector at the heart of several industries, it is crucial that the the skills gap is addressed.

“[We need to] make sure the skills gap is recognised so we don’t have a shortage of engineers. We need to start thinking about how we need to address it to solve the problems for the next 20-30 years,” Tyler concluded