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From Australia’s science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills gap to the lack of student awareness of career opportunities, and the much-needed engagement between industry and education, these are just a few of the challenges discussed at the recent Educate to Innovate: Growing the STEM workforce breakfast.

Hosted by CSIRO, this event served as a platform to equip businesses with the tools and knowledge needed to engage with young talent in STEM fields.

One clear theme emerged among our speakers—Kirk Duncan, Gail Tucker, Jessica Khoury, Holly Vallester, and Sunita Harrington—that collaboration between industry and education not only benefits students, but also has a significant ripple effect, driving Australia's economy, growth, and innovation.

Awareness is key

There are a few factors for industry to consider when engaging with schools, explains Gail Tucker, Careers Advisor at Liverpool Boys High School.

One is that many high school students grew up during COVID-19, facing uncertainty and restrictions that may have limited their opportunities to connect with people and organisations outside of their school and home environment.

Another factor is that in the southwest area, many families come from culturally diverse backgrounds, which may affect parental awareness of available opportunities.

©  Michael Winters - Bards Eye View, Courtesy of Cumberland City Council

“We have a significant task ahead, but we can’t do it without industry coming to schools and saying this is what we’ve got on offer. Students don’t know what they don’t know,” Gail emphasises.

Both Gail and Jessica, the Community Partnerships Officer at Liverpool Boys High School, stress the importance of industry outreach to students. Increasing awareness and exposure to real-world workplaces aids students in identifying their career interests.

One example of an industry and education partnership is that of industry mentor Kirk Duncan, the CEO of Mobile Apps Man and a Generation STEM mentor. He is a passionate advocate for engaging and mentoring students and often participates in careers expos, talks, and workshops for students.

Kirk says it’s particularly important to let students know of the opportunities available, whether that’s in I.T or A.I. STEM professionals are the experts, and need to share that knowledge with the teachers to remove the ambiguity that often surrounds STEM fields.

When Partnerships Work: Success Stories

Holly is a prime example of how collaboration between education and industry can succeed. She recently finished her Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering and Master of Biomedical Engineering at the University of New South Wales.

Starting with a manufacturing internship through Generation STEM Links, she transitioned to an engineering role and now has a permanent position at NAUTITECH®, where she focuses on their Intrinsically Safe (IS) solutions.

In response to the challenging employment market, NAUTITECH® initially partnered with Generation STEM Links in 2022 to recruit for junior engineering professionals, and recently realised it could also recruit interns for manufacturing and production roles.

Seventy percent of these interns were offered full-time positions, contributing to the company’s talent pool and productivity. Sunita Harrington, Head of Marketing and Communications at NAUTITECH® also highlights the financial grant received post-internship by CSIRO, which supported the company’s growth from small to medium-sized.

“We also had very unexpected outcomes and that was a change in the company culture. Having university students working alongside legacy staff really energised the company. It made the older engineers more agile, and we now have progression plans if someone retires.

“There’s more information sharing and introduction to new technology. We felt that we would be teaching the interns, but they’ve taught us quite a bit as well,” Sunita explains.

“Holly comes across as this quiet and shy person, but she’s saved the company $10,000 by finding a video technology that can visually show the manufacturing team how to build an engineering design using every single part, including the nuts and bolts.”

©  Michael Winters - Bards Eye View, Courtesy of Cumberland City Council

Another success story involves a student from Liverpool Boys High School who interned at a manufacturing company specialising in computer-aided design.

This experience not only provided valuable hands-on experience but also paved the way for the student to continue his studies at the University of Technology Sydney. Today, he mentor’s younger students at the high school. “It just shows how you all have a part in a student’s journey,” highlights Jessica.

What lies ahead: Making the first connection

“The best way to connect with schools is just to reach out,” says Jessica. “Even if you don’t know what you can offer, we can find out together.” Potential activities can include speaking opportunities, site visits, work experience, internships, meeting and mentoring the teachers.

Clear expectations, openness, and honesty are also important for establishing the relationship. Kirk stresses the importance of industry engaging with teachers to discuss availability and desired levels of involvement within the school.

For an internship or work experience opportunity, this includes being clear with the student about etiquette, roles, and tasks.

“Rather than getting frustrated because this young person is using their phone when they shouldn’t be or using language that is text-type as opposed to full language, be explicit. Have a process and explain what it is that you want before it gets to that point,” advises Gail.

One factor is evident: addressing the STEM skills gap requires a collaborative effort. Ian Oppermann, keynote speaker and co-founder of ServiceGen, Industry Professor at UTS, and former NSW Chief Data Scientist, reinforced to the audience that with STEM, doors open, you can explore and experiment, and lastly, with STEM, you can think differently about the world.

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