STEM student shortage is a national security crisis

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More students need to study key maths and science subjects or else South Australia will face significant issues in creating a workforce capable of developing nuclear-powered submarines, experts say.

Andrew Norton, a professor in higher education policy at the Australian National University, said he had held a “long-term concern” over the declining number of students in Australia undertaking high-level maths subjects in the final year of secondary school.

“That’s kind of what you need to manage an engineering degree,” he said.

High school enrolments in advanced maths subjects dropped to a historic low in 2020, the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute has found.

Just 9.2 per cent of students studied high-level maths, down from 11.6 per cent in 2008. Enrolments in intermediate-level maths plunged from 23.3 per cent in 2008 to 17.6 per cent in 2020, which are the most recent figures.

Professor Norton said there needed to be a “laser sharp focus” on engineering skills and pathways, as well as maths, to accommodate the skills and requirements of the future submarines work, as opposed to a push for more general STEM subjects.

“I think it’s going to be difficult, in some respects, because these are quite niche engineering skills with few alternative employers,” he said. “That will be a constraint on how much expansion we’ll see.”

Professor Norton said there also might not be an increase in participation in high-level maths for some time, with results from NAPLAN plunging.

“There’s a shrinking pool of people at the year 9 level who are performing at the top level in maths,” he said.

“That may flow through to fewer people doing more demanding maths subjects in the next few years.”

In SA, the picture is just as bleak, with stagnation setting in. In 2012, there were 1050 students who studied specialist mathematics at stage 2 level, the final year of SACE. A decade later, the number is slightly lower at 992.

Professor Norton said the added issue was the amount of students capable of undertaking high-level maths.

“A big caveat here is that there’s actually only a finite number of school leavers who have the mathematical ability to do an engineering degree,” he said.

SA Education Minister Blair Boyer said that encouraging STEM subjects was “incredibly important”.

“It’s critical that we provide our students with access to these opportunities, particularly following the AUKUS announcement late last year,” he said.

Mr Boyer said the government was doing “a range of things” to address the issue including offering $2m teaching scholarships to get more women teaching STEM. He hoped this would “encourage more female students”.

At just 14, Addison Feeney is a top student at Seymour College and wants a career in STEM.

“I think it’s really important to have the skills we used in STEM because it allows us to understand everything around us. Those skills can be used in any job,” the year 9 student said. Although Addison hasn’t made a firm decision in what job she wants, she is “really excited” to see the opportunities that await her in defence and STEM.

“It’s really important that we get more females involved in STEM because previously it was a male-dominated industry. I think all of these opportunities are going to open up a range of career options that will encourage people to get into STEM,” Addison said.

Challenges such as STEM and a skilled workforce will be covered at a Defending Australia event in Canberra, spearheaded by The Advertiser and Sunday Mail, which will feature a number of key panellists, including workers and experts from a range of areas. Meet five of them below.

Babcock graduate engineer Matthew Rourke. Picture: Morgan SetteBabcock graduate engineer Matthew Rourke. Picture: Morgan Sette


Matthew Rourke secured his first job out of university in Babcock Australasia’s graduate program in February 2022.

In just over a year at the company, the 22-year-old has worked on Collins-class submarine sustainment and supported the maintenance and refurbishment of the Weapons Discharge System and Submerged Signal Ejector. All this after attaining a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering (Honours) (Aerospace and Mechanical) from the University of Adelaide in 2021.

Mr Rourke currently works on various engineering projects for Babcock, including the design of the Air Weapons Handling System.

“The job is hands-on, and I know I’m contributing to the nation’s security,” he said.

Mr Rourke has been interested in defence from a young age, with family members serving as role models.

“My grandad was in the RAAF, and it was his story and experience that sparked my interest in defence,” he said.

Mr Rourke was in the Australian Air Force Cadets in Perth and moved to Adelaide for his university studies. He is looking forward to his future at the company, with firms vying to deliver AUKUS projects.

“With AUKUS opportunities on the horizon, it’s an exciting time to be at Babcock,” he said.

He said opportunities in the industry were abundant, with jobs for “everyone from engineers, project managers, boilermakers and everyone in between”.

BAE Systems Australia's Molly Davidson. Picture: James ElsbyBAE Systems Australia’s Molly Davidson. Picture: James Elsby


Molly Davidson studied an arts degree at university and is now in charge of prototyping on the Hunter-class frigate program.

Ms Davidson has been in the defence industry for more than a decade but, 10 years ago, it was a different story – she was finding it difficult to break into the arts industry.

“I studied a Bachelor of Arts, Communications and Media at uni and struggled to find a job in the industry,” she said. The desire for work led her to BAE Systems.

“I needed work, so I ended up here temping as an admin and then became permanent,” she said.

Ms Davidson said she instantly fell in love with the industry when she arrived at Osborne.

“Back then, I didn’t even know this was here,” she said. “For me, it was really exciting.”

Now, Ms Davidson works on large-scale shipbuilding prototypes.

“Before we start the first ship, we have five years of prototyping, so essentially we’re building a quarter of a ship,” she said. “I’m responsible for that scope of work.”

Ms Davidson said her role had similarities with skills she learnt in her arts degree.

“It’s communication, stakeholder engagement, being organised and that kind of thing,” she said.

A large part of her role is keeping projects on track, with engineers possibly not seeing the end product “for three or four years” after drawing up plans.

“It’s about constant communication and celebrating milestones,” Ms Davidson said.

ASC graduate engineer Cameron.ASC graduate engineer Cameron.


Cameron, a mechanical engineer at ASC, says anyone interested can join the defence workforce – and he should know, after an unorthodox journey to his career in the industry.

He initially tried working on a farm and then studied human movement before realising he “enjoys solving problems”.

“The husband of my wife’s best friend growing up worked at ASC, so I ended up meeting him and hearing a bit about what he did,” Cameron said. “That was enough to intrigue me, capture my attention and cause me to apply and move over to Adelaide from Melbourne.”

Cameron started in ASC’s graduate program in 2018 – and hasn’t looked back since.

“I found an initial role in a project management function,” he said.

But he discovered that his true calling was in engineering, where he could engage in “creative problem-solving”.

“I spent four years getting qualifications to be able to be an engineer, so I really wanted to try that and check that out,” Cameron said.

And anyone could get involved if they were interested.

“You don’t need to be top of the class in maths to add value and find satisfaction,” Cameron said.

Above all, he said, being able to “step back and look at the bigger picture” was the most important skill to succeed in the defence industry.

* Cameron’s last name is not disclosed due to national security rules


ANU PhD student Mahasen Sooriyabandara.ANU PhD student Mahasen Sooriyabandara.


Mahasen Sooriyabandara, 30, works on solutions to very specific problems in defence and STEM.

His PhD work at The Australian National University focuses on how to “measure things very precisely using quantum sensors” – but he wants to see the benefits of his technology “realised in the real world”.

In 2018, Mr Sooriyabandara began a company called Thaum that now employs 17 people and “acts as a bridge between research and industry”.

“In defence, we’ve worked on a few projects around optimising site collection for defensive installations,” he said.

“This involves optimising where to place a radar to surveil specific points in air space.”

Mr Sooriyabandara has always been interested in STEM, but his ambitions have changed throughout his life.

“I was always interested in STEM – even growing up – but what I wanted out of it changed as I got older,” he said.

“I want to see more of the benefits of this knowledge in technology being realised in the real world.” Mr Sooriyabandara said the way to entice people to take roles in STEM was by breaking down preconceived notions of people working in the field.

“There is a narrow perception of the kind of person in STEM but, really, STEM is for everyone,” he said.

“These talents just need a bit of nurturing and time and suddenly they’re more capable of a very specific thing.”

KBR subsidiary Frazer-Nash Consultancy space systems engineer Lauren Hassall. Picture: Tim HunterKBR subsidiary Frazer-Nash Consultancy space systems engineer Lauren Hassall. Picture: Tim Hunter


Lauren Hassall is among the talented Australians finding there are endless opportunities combining careers in the space and defence industries, where the same hi-tech skills are highly prized.

Ms Hassall, a space systems engineer turned business manager for KBR subsidiary Frazer-Nash Consultancy, is a prime example of someone making their mark in the new frontier of the nation’s fast- growing space sector.

Ms Hassall, who will be among the panellists at News Corp’s Defending Australia event in Canberra on Monday, says one of the main challenges is the “constantly evolving nature of the space industry”.

She says she needs to “stay up-to-date with the latest technologies, regulations and trends”.

“The value of my work lies in helping to drive the growth and innovation of the space industry,” she says.

“I’m able to make a positive impact on the industry and world at large.”

It is her “specific technical knowledge” she has developed from a host of training programs, research and industry conferences that allows her to be so effective.

“Across aerospace and the space industry particularly, it’s mostly about innovation management and development,” she says.

People like Ms Hassall with space industry skills are finding they are in high demand from defence companies and the two industries are set to become even more intertwined.

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Ms Hassall is set to complete her masters in space engineering from the University of New South Wales in June. She is an advocate for encouraging young women to take up STEM roles in the industry.

She is a board director of Robogals, a non-profit organisation that delivers free STEM programs to girls in schools.

Originally published as STEM student shortage risks a national security crisis, education experts warn

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