A so-called “fourth Industrial Revolution” has, by all accounts, already begun, and it’s prompting a fundamental rethink of education priorities across the developed world.
The STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – are set to underpin many jobs that will spring up during this new revolution, which experts say is propelled by an explosion in data, large computing power and global connectedness.
Professor Bruce Henry, head of the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of New South Wales, says these factors will drive enormous business growth across almost all areas.
The employment landscape is already being transformed. The World Economic Forum’s recent Future of Jobs Report estimates that between 2015 and 2020, 35 per cent of core job skills will change, while some jobs will disappear altogether and new jobs will be created.
Stock up on vital skills
“The best way to future-proof a career is to gain the fundamental skills needed to be part of this new revolution,” Henry says. “People will have an advantage if they have skills in mathematics and statistics, in coding, in business, in working in teams, in writing reports. There will be a lot of research opportunities, too.”
In short, STEM-trained people can look forward to superior employment outcomes. The winter 2017 Salary Survey report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers in the United States found that starting wages for STEM-trained workers would be the highest among 2017 university graduates.
But education systems are struggling to keep up. Demand for workers with STEM-related qualifications is ballooning, with 90 per cent of employers participating in the Mercer Talent Trends Survey 2016 anticipating increased competition for talent over the next year.
Feeding into fintech
Chris Brycki, chief executive of automated investment service Stockspot says Australia is only at the beginning of a “huge shift” of people managing their financial lives online and via mobile devices. That means rapid growth and demand for STEM-trained workers in sectors such as fintech.
Brycki says more STEM-trained graduates are not enough to fill the skill gap.
“We have graduates trained in STEM skills, but because tech entrepreneurship is more highly valued in places like Silicon Valley and London there’s a big incentive to move overseas,” Brycki says. “Working overseas is a rite of passage for many young Australians and that’s not going to change, but it’s important we have an exciting, innovative and well-supported fintech industry for them to return to.”
New courses emerging
The University of NSW is attempting to fix both the skills gap and Australia’s tradition of undervaluing STEM workers with its Bachelor of Data Science and Decisions, established this year. The degree spans three different disciplines: mathematics and statistics, computer science and business.
Despite an increase in the volume and quality of data, many companies are struggling to derive meaningful insights to inform decision making.
“There has been a lot of interest from students and some businesses have already offered co-op scholarships to students,” Henry says. “I expect numbers in this degree to grow substantially over the next few years.”
Revolution requires women
More than half of Australia’s universities have applied to participate in the Science in Australia Gender Equity program, designed to promote gender equity and diversity in STEM.
According to Mercer’s When Women Thrive, Businesses Thrive: Technology Industry Perspective, women currently represent just 34 per cent of the tech industry’s workforce. And, according to the World Economic Forum, the jobs under the greatest threat of automation and displacement in the coming years are disproportionately those held by women.
But Henry says focusing on STEM could facilitate greater female involvement. “This new revolution will be much more inclusive of female participation,” he says. “A lot of [manual] work in the field will be done by drones, robots and other artificial intelligence, harnessing data. But the analysis of the data will require human input. This can be done in offices or homes far removed from where data is collected. People can work in teams on other sides of the planet.”