The future of local manufacturing looks bright for Australia. Driven by a willingness to adopt modern technology and invest more heavily in research and development, our local manufacturing sector is becoming increasingly competitive with countries like China. However a major challenge remains in the form of a skills shortage. Young people are not being given the appropriate opportunities to explore the exciting, innovative and rewarding career paths that are emerging within modern manufacturing. As recently pointed out by Manufacturers’ Monthly, “Industry, schools and governments must work together to foster STEM career pathways” because STEM skills are key to securing the future of local manufacturing.
Science, technology, engineering and mathematical (STEM) skills were once a pillar of Australia’s development, helping to provide dependable employment for many. As manufacturing operations moved to cheaper offshore locations and university degrees became more accessible, the emphasis on STEM skills lagged, resulting in the skills shortage we are experiencing today.
The shortage has been further intensified by misinformed perceptions of the manufacturing industry, with most still only associating cars, traditional factories and manual labour with the sector in Australia. The reality for those entering the industry today is much different, characterised by high-tech, collaborative environments fostering intelligence and innovation.
The recent survey conducted by the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre has quantified some of the perceptions that are hampering Australia’s ability to strengthen its skilled workforce. For example, around 85% of those aged 65 and older believe manufacturing is important to maintaining a strong Australian economy. Whereas, just under half (48%) of 18–24-year-olds feel the same way. Further, it found that many respondents who claim to be familiar with manufacturing still associate it predominantly with production.
Those that actually work in the industry recognise that manufacturing is important, involves design and engineering, and is connected to well-paid and highly skilled jobs.This suggests the industry needs to do more to boost the perception of manufacturing among younger people, in order to influence their career choices and opportunities on offer.
“It is clear that if manufacturing is to become the cornerstone of Australia’s economic future, skills development must be regarded as the bedrock of a modern manufacturing industry.”Sharon Robertson – Chief Executive IBSA Group
The focus for governments, schools and the industry should be on collaborating to create an engaging national STEM skills program. Government commitment to improving the STEM skills of young people has been shown with various programs implemented over the years such as the CSIRO supported Generation STEM and the creation of the National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA).
To complement Government initiatives, schools must facilitate programs with the help of local industry to engage students through exposure to the modern manufacturing technologies and facilities that make employment in the sector so appealing. It’s imperative that we are demonstrating to young people that employment in manufacturing today involves a lot more than just fabrication or assembly. It provides unique opportunities to work with high-tech equipment and software, with highly intelligent people in innovative teams. It involves sales, marketing, distribution and logistics along with the rewarding processes in research, development and design. The gradual adoption of Industry 4.0 systems will serve to better engage young people who are already so competent with modern technology.
The fourth industrial revolution is a convergence of digital, biological and physical innovations that has been facilitated by the internet and digital solutions becoming embedded in manufacturing processes. Industry 4.0 is defined by artificial intelligence, automation, robotics, additive manufacturing and augmented and virtual reality. These are systems that the young people of Australia are naturally better equipped to comprehend and master than the older generations. The implementation of Industry 4.0 methods must therefore be a focus of education in the STEM fields as it will foster excitement for the future of local manufacturing, helping to fill the skills shortage.
As a nation of innovators, Australia’s global prospects in manufacturing are strengthening, but at the core of this is the recognition that STEM skills are key to securing the future of local manufacturing.