• The conference covered the range of challenges and opportunities in the STEM recruitment space.
    The conference covered the range of challenges and opportunities in the STEM recruitment space. ADM

Updated 9:55am August 16, 2019

ADM’s annual STEM in Defence summit took place in Canberra this week, attracting a range of speakers and delegates to look in depth at the opportunities and challenges facing Defence as it competes for a small pool of STEM workers.

The challenges to growing a STEM workforce are well-documented, but a few speakers gave new numbers that highlight the extend of the public relations problem Defence is facing amongst STEM-qualified graduates.

“Women hold a quarter of STEM-related jobs and are under-represented in high level research,” Air Commodore Sue McGready, Head of Defence Recruiting, said. “STEM is critical to our warfighting advantage. This is too important to leave to market forces.

"Females account for 12.4 per cent of student engineers, yet 20,000 migrant engineers arrive each year. We're not growing our own.”

Maree Mahoney Director of Workforce Capability and Talent at DST Group also noted that Australia’s ability to engage women in STEM is far lower than other countries in the Asia Pacific, suggesting that the problem is a local one.

"In 2016, Australia had the lowest percentage of girls electing to engage in STEM (27 per cent) in the Asia Pacific,” Mahoney noted. “China manages 76 per cent.”

According to AIRCDRE McGready, Defence is also struggling to attract STEM graduates because many do not want to design weapons or contribute to combat. Others are wary of the physical and social requirements, or do not see the advantage of a career in Defence when that career demands mobility sacrifices that civilian industry does not (and often for less pay).

"We're not viewed as an employer of first choice for STEM-qualified people and will be competing with Defence industry,” AIRCDRE McGready said. “The possibility of contributing to combat turns off STEM-qualified people."

This ‘public relations’ problem was also highlighted by Luke Brown, Assistant Secretary of Defence’s Space and Communications branch. Brown noted that whilst exciting endeavours attract people into STEM careers, not all those careers live up to expectations.

"Neil Armstrong's small step was supported by 400,000 people,” Brown said. “So how do we excite people, but also give a realistic picture of what the jobs are?”

Yet all hope is not lost. Anntonette Dailey of the Australian Space Agency spoke of their efforts to engage in ‘moon shot’ projects and inspire conversations at dinner tables around Australia.

“We're not NASA - we have a budget of $73.2 million," Dailey said. "But we like to run under the legs of giants - we're fast, we're agile."

Teresa Janowski, CEO and founder of STEM Fast Track, spoke of her organisation’s efforts to expose young girls and boys to a career in the field. Janowski brought program alumni Summer Till, now in her first year of university studying to become a naval architect, on-stage.

 “The networking in STEM Sista was really new to me,” Till said. “I didn't know a lot about STEM, but meeting people was really impactful.”

ADF UAS ‘cheerleader’ Lieutenant Colonel Keirin Joyce also gave the audience an overview of everything Army is doing in this space, with his drone racing team on hand to demonstrate some of the drones currently flown by the Army Drone Racing Team and others.

“Being a pilot these days isn’t about Top Gun and guys in flight suits,” LTCOL Joyce said. “I can make someone a pilot for $300. Now that’s rad.”

STEM Strategic Vision

ADM’s STEM Summit came the day after Chief Defence Scientist Professor Tanya Monro launched Defence’s STEM Workforce Strategic Vision 2019-2030.

Professor Monro said Defence is expanding its STEM cadetship program from 50 interns to 200 cadets within this year, across the whole organisation, not just DST. This creates new opportunities for students to start developing exciting defence careers even before finishing their studies.

DST scientists Dr Olivia Samardzic and Dr Robert Hunjet spoke about their areas of expertise and journeys from school, to university, to research roles and then to DST. From lasers to AI/swarming, the two ambassadors engaged with the dozens of high school students in the room about where science can take you and what inspired them to work in the field.

“We don’t have enough Australian students taking STEM subjects, and of those few, we need to encourage more female and indigenous students,” Prof Monro said at the launch. “We need to be ready for the jobs that don’t exist yet to create the future we are building. This pathway needs to be easy for students and their support network of parents, teachers and careers advisors to access and understand.”

With this in mind, a Defence STEM website portal is also under development that can act as a ‘front door’ to STEM careers in defence across the board.

“We’ll only do it if we deliver it together,” Prof Monro concluded.

Keep an eye out for Prof Monro's From the Source interview in the September edition of ADM.

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