Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Jobs of the Future: The Known Unknown

By Karen Andrews

The digital revolution is having a profound impact on the workforce. Increasing skills in science, technology, engineering and maths is not optional.

The Australian labour market will undergo a profound transition over the next 10–20 years. It’s hard to comprehend, but it’s been estimated that 5.1 million or 44% of current Australian jobs are at risk from digital disruption over the next 20 years.

If you find this difficult to believe, think about this. Today you are likely to consult with an app designer, a search engine optimisation specialist, a blogger and a social media adviser to promote a new product. These are all jobs that didn’t exist 10 years ago.

In a world of unknowns, what we do know is that change is here to stay and will have a profound effect on the economy and the labour market. This is what scientists call the “known unknown”.

It’s an issue that has certainly been at the front of my mind as I’ve travelled around the country talking to people about science, technology, engineering and maths. Everyone that I have spoken to has certainly acknowledged that a lot more needs to be done to improve the skills of our nation in order to prepare ourselves for the future. But many don’t fully understand the reason why increasing STEM skills – science, technology, engineering and maths – is not optional.

There are some key indicators of the skills we will need. One of these is the ability to critically analyse the enormous amounts of data we are amassing. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope project, to be built in the Western Australian outback, will provide us with a Google map of the universe, producing ten times the current levels of global internet traffic (AS, July/August, 2015, pp.37–39). While we don’t yet have a computer that will be able to process that amount of data, when we do we’ll need people with the skills to interpret it. In the future, as technology continues its exponential growth, our ability to be able to analyse and interpret, to critically think, to lead and inspire, will be our competitive advantage.

There are some things we need to do before we race headlong into purported solutions. We need to understand the problem. It’s not a quick fix.

We know that the real opportunity lies with our 10–14 year-olds. There is, however, a strong argument that we should be engaging much earlier. In fact a German program called “Little Scientists” is currently being rolled out in 40 or so kindergartens across NSW.

We also know that there is an even greater issue we need to address – the impact of the influencers on our students. Most people can remember their “light bulb” moment. For me it was my love of maths that set me on my path to be a mechanical engineer. Teachers are the source of many light bulb moments, but parents are often the missing link. We need to make sure that parents are aware of what skills the jobs of the future need. They need to know that the job market for lawyers is tight but there are thousands of vacant jobs in the ICT sector. They need to encourage their bright students to do the hard maths instead of an easier option.

Career advisers, principals, peers, the motivational speaker that spoke at careers night or even the family friend that travels around the world for work can all have a huge influence on a young person’s career path, and can impart the value of core STEM skills for future careers. And we need them to do exactly that.

The problem is certainly complex, and there is not just one magical fix for this. We must have a sensible debate about the way forward. We need to understand that it’s going to take a minimum of 10 years to influence the 10-year-olds in school now, and get them through their science subjects and into the workforce.

This is a long-term process, but work is already underway. We intend to continue pushing forward as a government, and I am committed to working with industry and the science sector to ensure the development of a national STEM strategy that puts us on the right trajectory to capitalise on the jobs of the future.

Karen Andrews is a mechanical engineer, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Industry and Science, and the Federal Member for McPherson.