How do we fix STEM’s brain drain?

Why do our best and brightest continue to leave the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and maths?

Despite the Australian government investing heavily in STEM graduates, the problem lies further along the career path. Staff are exiting these industries in high numbers, citing a choice to pursue better paid careers or those with better opportunities.

With Australia’s retention of staff lagging behind leading OECD countries, it is a concerning trend – and the focus of a three-year, multi-university project investigating how to strengthen Australia’s science workforce and retain key staff.

“This has been a problem for some time but as Australia’s future economic prosperity depends on science and innovation, it is garnering more attention,” says the project leader, Monash Business School’s Dr Kohyar Kiazad.

“Previous research focuses on why students drop out of science degrees or why high school students don’t elect to take science subjects. However, there isn’t much research on why scientists leave or stay in their professions.”

Dr Kiazad, who works jointly in the Department of Management and Centre for Global Business, has been awarded an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Grant, uniquely for this category.  The project is a collaboration between the Australian National University, Arizona State University, Georgetown University and the University of Washington.

The federal government is investing heavily to boost Australia’s STEM talent, with its $5 million Primary Connections program, $7.4 million Mathematics by Inquiry project, and the National Science and Innovation Agenda.

Yet recent Graduate Careers data shows that only 40-60 per cent of STEM graduates in Australia ultimately pursue STEM-focused careers. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) shows that between 2012 and 2013, 55 per cent of scientific and technical services professionals in Australia switched to non-STEM industries.

The result is that Australia ranks just 17th in the Global Innovation Index, behind New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the US, Canada and Singapore. The number of patents registered from Australia is also declining.

Yet Asian and European countries are not experiencing the same trend. “In some European and Asian countries, staff levels in STEM and country innovation scores are much higher compared with Australia,” Dr Kiazad says.

So what are the solutions? Salary and career advancement opportunities may lie behind the brain drain, he believes. So the project will assess a framework of “job embeddedness”.

“Feelings of fit, social connections with colleagues and perks such as good pay tend to keep people in their jobs,” Dr Kiazad says.

“This project is about testing whether those factors will apply to retaining scientists as well.”

This research program will use qualitative, experimental and survey methods to develop an evidence-based toolkit; an online “masterclass”; and online community of practice to encourage STEM experts to stay in the field.

Dr Kiazad says there is a dire need for a solution. There are labour market shortages in civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering, while demand for STEM within the resources sector is projected to grow 5 per cent a year.

Yet a 2015 PriceWaterhouseCoopers report shows that even a one per cent shift of Australia’s workforce into STEM roles could generate an additional $57.4 billion in GDP over 20 years.

Published on 24 Apr 2017