According to Australia’s 2020 STEM Workforce Report, just one in 200 Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) people of working age have a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) degree, compared to one in 20 non-Indigenous working age people. Why aren’t more ATSI Australians involved in STEM professions?
Brunel’s Diversity and Inclusion Manager Sonya Liddle discusses the barriers faced by ATSI youth in pursuing these opportunities, and how educational institutions and organisations can work together to create clearer, more inclusive pathways to success.
Unravelling the disconnect
Change starts with understanding
Phase One of the project saw us visit Year 11 and 12 ATSI students at a number of Western Australian high schools to chat to them about their understanding of STEM subjects in high school and tertiary education, and to discuss engineering as a career choice. These visits enabled us to map the touchpoints across their schooling where they were (or weren’t) given information about STEM-related careers, pathways or potential opportunities.
Of the 40 or so ATSI students we met with, all were on track to complete the Online Literacy and Numeracy Assessment (OLNA), however none were enrolled in the subjects required to obtain an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) – the standard requirement for university admission. In other words, none of the students were on a mainstream pathway towards tertiary education. Our conversations were a little hesitant at first, but as we shared some doughnuts and stories, students began to provide feedback that was honest, blunt and more than a little concerning.
Students demonstrated a lack of understanding when asked, ‘what do you think is a good wage for an adult?’ The overwhelming majority said they didn’t know what their parents made or what an annual wage should even be. Answers ranged from as low as $20,000 a year - which isn’t even minimum wage - to quite a few around the $50,000 mark. Three students replied with figures over $100,000 but those students all related their answers back to someone they knew who worked in a fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) role.
Graduate programs are not the answer: we need to do more to cater to students from all walks of life, at all levels of academic ability.
Looking ahead toward broader horizons
In preparation for Phase Two of our program - visiting those same schools to engage with Year 8, 9 and 10 ATSI students - we are mapping out a series of ‘day in the life of an engineer’ examples from various industries to help demystify students’ perceptions. We are also working with the WISE Professional Network to prepare hands-on STEM activities to help promote student engagement.
While I genuinely believe we can develop the framework needed to improve ATSI engagement in STEM within our schools (who have shown fantastic commitment so far), it is crucial for companies from a variety of different industries to also get onboard. Organisations need to consider a more agile approach to their ATSI trainee pathways and workforce development plans. Graduate programs are not the answer: we need to do more to cater to students from all walks of life, at all levels of academic ability. We need companies to look at multi-phase programs to ensure that we can genuinely progress the careers of ATSI candidates – for example, moving away from starting as a trade assistant or dump truck operator and instead starting as a trainee draftsperson with a progression plan over several years to potentially earn an engineering degree.
As part of the next phase of this conversation, Brunel will be hosting a series of round table discussions with key players from WA and QLD to help determine what steps can be made and which companies have the appetite for true Indigenous Australian representation in STEM. If we want to take genuine steps to removing barriers for ATSI youth to pursue rewarding careers in STEM, we need to get creative. There is always a solution if you look hard enough.
Brunel acknowledges the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people of the many traditional lands and language groups of Australia. We acknowledge the wisdom of Elders both past and present, and pay respect to the communities of today. We recognise their continuing connection to the land, waters and community.