​Pushing STEM in high school is too little, too late

Fixing skills shortage requires earlier intervention and equal opportunities for low-income families

STEM skills should be taught at a much younger age if there is any hope of filling the growing skills gap, according to Hays Recruitment's A/NZ boss, Nick Deligiannis.

Programs aimed at engaging secondary students in science, technology and mathematics (STEM) subjects are leaving it too late, Deligiannis said, as older students have already begun choosing their elective subjects and developing opinions about their career.

“If children were made aware of STEM careers, and STEM-related learning experiences were implemented earlier, it could inspire an interest in those subjects and ultimately, careers,” he said.

“[Young students] would learn that these subjects actually encompass a lot of modern and exciting technologies, such as artificial intelligence and software engineering,” he said.

Hays have called for collaboration between government, businesses, educational institutes and parents to develop a solution to create more workers with crucial STEM capabilities. The skills shortage has reached crisis levels as many current STEM workers reaching retirement age.

Deligiannis said it was important for parents to also become aware earlier on around STEM education and career opportunities.

“Engineering is such a broad term. Children, parents and teachers should be told about the various aspects and job types so that there’s a coordinated response to the STEM skill shortage.”

The recruitment firm’s stance echoed the sentiments of by SAS founder, Dr Jim Goodnight, who last year told CIO Australia that solving the STEM skills shortage should start at pre-school, with a need for better educational opportunities for students that come from lower-income families.

Dr Goodnight’s comments reflected the higher likelihood that students from low-income families would struggle with school and potentially drop out, with fewer opportunities from the outset compared to their wealthier peers.

“A low income child who has been raised by a single parent has a much smaller vocabulary, they haven’t been asked ‘what colour is this, what letter is this?’ like middle and upper class families do all the time,” said Dr Goodnight.

“We've got to find a way to bring the low income children up to the level of some of the other kindergarten kids. You've got to start at some point and it won’t pay off for 12 or 13 years.

“It’s crazy to keep [offering] a remedial education to kids that have sort of half dropped out of school because they can’t keep up. Let’s start with preschool right now to make sure everybody has got a good start.”

Dr Goodnight praised Australia as currently “doing a better job” in addressing the skills shortage than the US, with Australia ranked 19th for maths in the program for international student assessment (PISA) while the US is placed 34th.

He said it was also worth considering if teachers that specialised in STEM subjects could be paid more as it was a crucial area, and would serve as a good incentive for all teachers to become aware and trained in STEM studies and careers.

“The idea of differentiated pay is somewhat controversial to the teacher unions but it’s something that’s necessary if we are going to retain the best and brightest teachers in the STEM area,” Dr Goodnight said.

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