Encouraging STEM participation to address climate change

With thousands of Australian students recently joining their peers from over 82 countries in pressuring world leaders to urgently address climate change, attention must now turn to how as a society we can better support their passionate pleas into future careers.

The commitment demonstrated by students across the globe is testament to the importance that our next generations are placing on reversing the global carbon footprint.

However, the question remains: What is the best way to leverage this passion in order to access a career that will enable them to better protect the environment?

I believe that to unlock the passion we must position science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) participation as one of a number of solutions to the climate change debate.

It is not surprising that STEM is one of the key elements in unlocking the potential to help solve climate change related issues. However, pupil enrolments in STEM subjects has continued to fall across all education levels.

According to the most recent National Scientific Statement, participation in STEM subjects in Australian schools is at the lowest level in 20 years.

This is directly converting to declining participation in STEM related careers, with the proportion of Australia’s population aged 20 to 64 with post-school qualifications in STEM dwindling compared to a decade ago.

And the decline in interest in STEM fields is surprising given the significant funds ($64 million in government funding for school STEM initiatives) that has been provided to promote them.

The general consensus among policymakers is that STEM jobs will become more and more important as technology plays an ever-increasing role in the economy, and what I am witnessing is the huge demand by employers for STEM skills, even for roles where STEM qualifications are not a prerequisite.

In turn this may partially explain why Australian businesses are now reporting skill shortages well above the average level seen since the turn of the millennium.

Australians, in a broader sense, may not actually be learning the skills that are required now and, in the future, which includes the skills required to combat climate change.

For policymakers, employers, parents and their children these facts, figures, forecasts and trends should be as equally alarming as our energy usage and carbon emissions.

At the compulsory school level, students are already exploring climate change as an issue the world needs to address. We need to encourage them further by connecting the dots between climate change, STEM and the subsequent career opportunities that are available to them that will make a difference.

For those students closer to university there has never been a wider range of STEM opportunities available to them. Responsibility must also be placed on a student’s sphere of influence (parents, family members, mentors, teachers and career councillors) to further encourage them into STEM careers.

The challenge is how we collectively engage young people into STEM while fuelling the flame and their passion for the environment.

The solution is to appeal to the hearts and minds of our next generations commitment to the environment and subsequently into STEM related careers.

Jane Lowney is the head of engineering and infrastructure at recruitment firm Robert Walters.