• Dr Sheridan Kearnan speaking at the STEM in Defence conference.
Ewen Levick
    Dr Sheridan Kearnan speaking at the STEM in Defence conference. Ewen Levick
  • Minister for Defence Marise Payne opening proceedings.
Ewen Levick
    Minister for Defence Marise Payne opening proceedings. Ewen Levick

ADM’s annual STEM in Defence conference took place in Canberra on Tuesday this week. Over 130 delegates from Defence, industry, and academia gathered to hear speakers discuss the challenges and opportunities around recruiting and retaining STEM talent in the Defence community.

Proceedings were opened by Minister for Defence Marise Payne, who highlighted the on-going STEM challenges facing Defence.

“Finding and retaining staff with the right skill sets is a challenge across the Western world,” Minister Payne said. “We can’t cannibalize each other - we must work together.

“Ultimately, however, we can’t recruit our way out of the STEM issue. We have to grow the pool of candidates right across the country.”

The Minister also took the opportunity to launch the Military International Drone Racing Tournament, to be held in Sydney on October 18.

“We’re looking forward to this new military sports event and to letting Australians let loose their inner geek,” Minister Payne said. “I think [Army] even want me to race a drone!" 

Delegates were able to see the drone team in action during the breaks with a selection of pilots and drones on display, with some people taking the chance to have a fly themselves.

According to LTCOL Kierin Joyce, SO1 UAS for Army, the end goal is to achieve tech literacy across the ADF.

“The pace of UAS development is extremely rapid,” LTCOL Joyce said. “It is also demanding new and novel ways of countering those technologies. We need a culture of learning by doing and getting tech literacy into our future force.”

Air Commodore Sue McGready, Director General of Defence Force Recruiting, said that the ADF isn’t currently doing enough to attract STEM graduates. 

“We estimate that 65 per cent of jobs that will be available in 2030 don’t exist yet,” AIRCDRE McGready said. “We need to develop plasticity. The ADF isn’t an employer of choice for STEM graduates and we need to do more to address that.”

Dr Sheridan Kearnan of Defence Industry Policy said the answer lies in learning what inspires kids.

“The kid in the 60s were inspired by Star Trek and Captain Kirk,” Kearnan said. “It shouldn’t be that hard for us to sell the story today. Defence does really cool stuff and we need to sell it to get people engaged.

Defence will be releasing its STEM strategy mid 2019 that will cover both its uniformed and APS workforces.

Other speakers highlighted issues such as talent retention and equity of opportunity.

“We’re going to broaden the gate to include more females,” Richard Price, CEO Defence SA, said, speaking on the issue of diversity and inclusion. “We need to push from the school side and pull from the industry side. We need to get to a point where kids think of us as a possibility.”

Diversity and inclusion in all forms became common themes throughout the day.

Dr Fransesca Maclean spoke directly: “If you’re not consciously including, you’re unconsciously excluding.”

Maclean also encouraged delegates to actively consider actions they could take to improve inclusion in the following weeks, hosting a workshop about effective strategies in this space in terms of language and action.

A range of case studies also highlighted what a successful STEM program can look like with STEMNation, PTECH schools, ME series of programs in the Hunter, and VSSEC. Common attributes included true partnership between schools and industry, support materials for teachers who may not be STEM centred themselves, real world application of lessons and a clear pathway for students once a program has concluded.

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