Workforce ‘smoke and mirrors’ down under

Americans are accustomed to hearing dire but dubious pronouncements about skill and labor shortages in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields and the damage they do to prosperity and competitiveness. Australians are, too, according to an article published online on 20 January in Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, entitled “Impending STEM Shortages in Australia: Beware the ‘Smoke and Mirrors.’ ”

“Within Australia over the last decade there has been considerable government rhetoric about impending shortages in the STEM workforce and the long-term impact on the future economy,” write Debra Panizzon et al. of the Centre for Science, Mathematics and Technology Education at Monash University, Clayton, in Australia. “Much of the data provided in government and industry reports allude to falling participation rates in STEM-related subjects and the inability of industry to employ suitable employees with the necessary skill-sets.” Such reports, though, are riddled with “inconsistencies and ‘smoke and mirror’ messages,” the authors write. In their “theoretical paper,” the authors say, “we explore these reports and the STEM literature to mine the data so as to highlight” the sources of confusing and misleading data.

Much of it is to do with industry acting as consumers of graduates rather than investing in the education process for both the education system and their own workforce.

Contradictory and incomplete categories and failure to account for changing conditions are responsible for many of the problems. For example, “at the school level, the data of school students studying STEM subjects is misrepresented,” co-author Deborah Corrigan tells Science Careers by e-mail. “We have similar numbers of students studying physics, chemistry, and mathematics as we have always had, but the percentage goes down as more students are staying on in school [because] the denominator has gotten bigger. At university level, the data is almost impossible to gather. [For] example, students at my university often study double degrees—so they can do a science degree and an education degree at the same time. Because an education degree is longer than a science degree, they are recorded as being education graduates and not science graduates for any survey data. … Data from institutions other than universities, e.g. vocational colleges, is also not gathered in any systematic way. So the education pathways data is very patchy and misleading.”

Both government and industry issue information that “simply do[es] not align to the experiences of the general population who are witnessing (often first-hand) the closure of significant STEM-related manufacturing companies across Australia. As discussed in this paper, similar evidence is available for the US and UK,” the article states.

“Industry is significant in generating this smoke and mirrors,” Corrigan adds in her e-mail. “Much of it is to do with industry acting as consumers of graduates rather than investing in the education process for both the education system and their own workforce. It is, for example, cheaper to employ a new graduate than [to] educate a current worker. It is also commonplace for industry to say the graduates are not well prepared for the world of work, but cannot … articulate why they are not ready for work. The skills set they nominate is often not a generic set but rather highly specific for their particular industry. So there is a shift in the responsibility of who should educate and to what level.”  

“This picture is also clouded by the fact that the definition of STEM shifts according to how to gain better advantage,” Corrigan continues. “Many engineers for example do not or cannot get jobs in the engineering sector, and there is an imperative for industry to demonstrate they cannot get workers locally before visas can be approved. However there is game-playing around this, as they can hire experience from overseas more cheaply than they can [hire] experience from local sources. Again, this is cost-cutting in terms of who pays and how much they pay (both for experience and education).”

The existence of shortage claims in Australia does not surprise labor economist Hal Salzman of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “Similar to the U.S., evidence [in the Panizzon et al. article] suggests there is no shortage and, similar to the U.S., a policy narrative can develop without grounding in evidence, presumably to serve other, political objectives,” he tells Science Careers by e-mail. “With ample global supplies of lower cost technical labor, one can expect shortage narratives to develop throughout advanced industrial nations to justify the expansion of high-skill guest worker policies so that firms can replace higher cost domestic workforces.”

Another funny thing happened on the way to the STEM shortage

The science of schmoozing