ADM's inaugural STEM in Defence Summit took place in Canberra yesterday with the Defence Minister, various Department leaders, recruiters, Industry and non-profit advocacy groups coming together to present their views and discuss opportunities to grow the STEM workforce.
Air Vice Marshal (Reserve) Tony Needham from Defence People Group, delivered the keynote as he is in the process of developing Defence's new STEM strategy, outlining the pressures faced by Defence and listing the potential responses.
“Forward looking, forward scanning research of emerging capability change, and how that places pressures on Defence's planned STEM workforce, is the way ahead, with the greatest opportunities arising from collaboration with stakeholders both internal and external,” AVM Needham explained to the delegates.
In his view, Defence needed to take a long term approach with a forward looking decision making annual cycle that is aimed at supporting capability managers, is closely linked to the capability planning process, and is continually reviewed and refined.
Assistant Secretary Defence Industry Matt Ramage said the STEM endeavour was a national one that would need to be carried out in partnership with the States and Territories, with industry, and the research and education sectors. His division's major focus over the next six to eight months was delivering the Defence Industry Skilling and STEM Strategy. Ramage highlighted the good programs and successes such as School Pathways and the Defence Engineering Internship Program but said there needed to be greater coordination of the national effort.
“Everybody's investing in STEM programs," he said. "You see these great initiatives popping up everywhere to try and reach the defence industry market but the challenge is to bring it all together - at present we have a lot of spokes but we don't have a hub.”
Ramage stressed it was imperative first to have a clear vision of what defence industry should look like and then understand the skills needed to support that – it wasn't a one size fits all approach with shipbuilding, aerospace, cyber and ISR and joint capabilities all having differing needs.
“The Defence Industrial Capability Plan will do that - it will look across the capability streams and indicate the growth path and the associated opportunities for defence industry."
STEM is close to the heart of Defence Minister Marise Payne, who quickly dispelled with her prepared remarks and regaled the audience with some of her personal observations. Despite her own Arts/Law education, she said ironically she had a particularly strong personal commitment and passion towards engaging in the area of STEM.
“I would never be regarded as a STEM talented student but I do recognise that in 2017 and looking forward on the path set down by the Defence White Paper, this has to be our passion to do the job we need to do in Defence.”
In relating an experience she had in meeting cadets from the three services in Mackay, Minister Payne questioned whether any had really considered the STEM pathways that were available to them for a future career in Defence, either in or out of uniform.
“With a number of them, I got the feeling that I was the first person that had engaged in that conversation. This prompted me to think – is it happening in their schools? Is it happening in their homes? Is it even happening in cadets? These are interesting questions that myself and my organisation need to answer.”
Minister Payne also cautioned that from a whole of Government perspective, it was important the STEM push was coordinated between departments and that cannibalising of STEM talent did not occur - Defence's need was niche within the wider STEM ecosystem.
Perhaps the most profound take away from the event was the impact teachers could have on steering young people towards STEM careers. There were many examples given where a different approach by teachers (who had generally been inspired through initiatives like Teachers TV, Boeing’s Space Camp and Aerospace Gateways partnership and Coding Club) got kids thinking about the possibilities that were open to them.
Re-engineering Australia Foundation executive chairman and long-time STEM advocate Michael Myers said disruptive technologies technically eliminated the need for kids to physically attend schools but nothing could replicate the impact a teacher could have on students.
“What the education system needs to realise is the thing they need to be teaching in schools is the experience in being able to handle the interface between people and problems – this can’t be delivered over the web, it’s about human contact.”
“Think of a sports team – you can download the instructions and watch all the videos but what makes a team really work is the coach and his or her work, one-on-one and in real time – that’s what STEM is really all about, problem solving, and if the education system can put more emphasis on that we won’t lose our strategic advantage.”
Citing recent winning performances by Australian students in international STEM programs like F1 in Schools and Subs in Schools, Myers said: “Australian kids are considered the best in the world in STEM - when they walk into the room at these championships, the rest of the world stops in awe”.
A selection of slide presentations from the event can be viewed here.