Right chem­istry miss­ing

In­dus­try faces huge prob­lems re­cruit­ing sci­en­tists, and it is a world­wide prob­lem, writes Kirsten Lees

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Career One -

IT is not news that the num­ber of science grad­u­ates from Aus­tralian univer­si­ties and TAFE col­leges is fall­ing. Nor is it a sur­prise to many that chem­istry is be­ing hit harder than other core sci­ences. But a cri­sis that in­dus­try prac­ti­tion­ers have been point­ing to since the 1990s is im­pact­ing on in­dus­try.

Re­cruiters, in­dus­try groups and em­ploy­ers com­plain of in­creas­ing dif­fi­culty in fill­ing job va­can­cies with suit­ably qual­i­fied science grad­u­ates. And ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey of the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals in­dus­try pub­lished this month, em­ploy­ers are find­ing those grad­u­ates they do em­ploy are com­monly con­sid­ered not ‘‘ job ready’’.

Re­cruit­ment agency Kelly Sci­en­tific Re­sources has launched its Fu­ture Sci­en­tists Pro­gram, an ini­tia­tive to bridge the gap be­tween Kelly’s clients in in­dus­try and the ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions that train the po­ten­tial work­force. Di­rec­tor Anne Sabine, who launched the pro­gram in Au­gust this year, ex­plains, ‘‘ There is a short­age of skilled sci­en­tists, es­pe­cially within chem­istry — and we es­pe­cially see this in the plas­tics in­dus­try and in phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals. We can find it dif­fi­cult to fill po­si­tions even for low-level lab tech­ni­cians — es­pe­cially those jobs that re­quire six months’ in­dus­try ex­pe­ri­ence.’’

The pro­gram aims to en­cour­age science grad­u­ates to move into in­dus­try, and to fill the ex­pe­ri­ence gap by fa­cil­i­tat­ing a pro­gram of in­tern­ships. The in­tern­ships will strengthen the re­la­tion­ship be­tween in­dus­try and ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions and give stu­dents an in­sight into the re­al­i­ties of work­ing in science-based in­dus­try, po­ten­tial ca­reer paths and the range of op­por­tu­ni­ties avail­able to science grad­u­ates.

Ac­cord­ing to Sabine, the model has been suc­cess­ful in the US, where there are cur­rently more than 300 in­tern­ships. ‘‘ We have al­ready brought the Univer­sity of Queens­land, the Univer­sity of West­ern Syd­ney and Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy in Syd­ney on board, and we are talk­ing to other in­sti­tu­tions around the coun­try.’’

Mick Hay is an­other re­cruiter con­cerned by the lack of science grad­u­ates. Hay, an agri­cul­tural science grad­u­ate, runs spe­cial­ist agribusi­ness re­cruiter Rim­fire Re­sources. ‘‘ Find­ing good science grad­u­ates is tough. The over­all num­ber com­ing through the sys­tem is in­ad­e­quate, from my per­spec­tive,’’ he says.

Ac­cord­ing to Hay, the sit­u­a­tion has reached a cri­sis point with the po­ten­tial to se­ri­ously af­fect pro­duc­tiv­ity and, ul­ti­mately, Aus­tralia’s stand­ing as lead­ing-edge in­no­va­tor in crop growth and de­vel­op­ment. Hay’s hunch is right. Agri­cul­tural science en­rol­ments are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a dra­matic down­turn around the coun­try. With the sever­ity of the drought, agri­cul­ture is not per­ceived as an in­dus­try that of­fers an op­ti­mal ca­reer path.

It is a per­cep­tion that needs to change, ac­cord­ing to Hay. ‘‘ We need to put the sex­i­ness back into science. It is an ex­cit­ing time to grad­u­ate — and the agri­cul­tural in­dus­try is in­creas­ingly tech­nol­ogy driven — from crop de­vel­op­ment, to ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion, to GPS sys­tems used to guide ma­chin­ery. Science grad­u­ates are in great de­mand and are be­ing snapped up.’’

Pro­fes­sor Ian Rae, di­rec­tor of the Royal Aus­tralian Chem­i­cal In­sti­tute In­cor­po­rated (RACI) says: ‘‘ We are be­ing out-com­peted across the range of sci­ences — physics, en­gi­neer­ing, earth sci­ences — both at univer­sity and as a ca­reer path. Science is hard graft to study and as a ca­reer. Smart young peo­ple know they can work their way up through busi­ness and man­age­ment and achieve the salaries and lifestyle that they de­sire. They make a ra­tio­nal de­ci­sion in to­day’s so­ci­ety.’’

In 2005 the RACI pub­lished The Fu­ture of Chem­istry with a se­ries of rec­om­men­da­tions to ad­dress the grow­ing short­fall in chem­i­cal in­takes. Two years on, Rae says that while some progress is be­ing made, there is no quick fix. ‘‘ You can’t say it’s the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, you can’t blame teach­ing or any other one thing that we are do­ing wrong or could do bet­ter. It is a global is­sue, not unique to Aus­tralia. It will re­quire lat­eral tran­si­tion.’’

One rec­om­men­da­tion of the RACI re­port was to bring in­dus­try and academia to­gether at a pol­icy level. ‘‘ With that in mind we are hold­ing the Chem­i­cal Lead­ers’ Con­fer­ence early in 2008, and invit­ing top-level bu­reau­crats as well as academia and in­dus­try.’’

In the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals in­dus­try it is not just the de­creas­ing num­ber of science grad­u­ates that is caus­ing con­cern. A re­cent sur­vey by the Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mit­tee (PEC) found that the num­ber one is­sue for phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies and bio­phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal in­dus­try — large and small — was a lack of job readi­ness of job can­di­dates.

Pro­fes­sor Gra­ham Macdon­ald, chair of PEC, said: ‘‘ The large phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies are more at­tuned to the reg­u­la­tory li­cens­ing en­vir- on­ment, whereas the small biotech com­pa­nies may lack science grad­u­ates. While large com­pa­nies may be able to ad­dress that through up­skilling and on-the-job train­ing, small and medium com­pa­nies do not have the re­sources.

‘‘ The sur­vey is part of a three-step pro­gram to in­ves­ti­gate phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal work­force needs, as­sess skills gaps and work with gov­ern­ments and ter­tiary in­sti­tu­tions to en­sure that the Aus­tralian ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem pro­vides the right skills for this knowl­edge based in­dus­try,’’ says Prof Macdon­ald, ‘‘ and it is too early in the process for fixes to be iden­ti­fied.’’

How­ever, he sug­gests that the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal in­dus­try could ben­e­fit from a more por­ous in­ter­face be­tween academia and in­dus­try. ‘‘ Fluid move­ment and a seam­less in­ter­face, such as seen in some over­seas coun­tries such as Swe­den, might be a model that would in part at least cor­rect the skills gap and cre­ate in­ter­est­ing and dy­namic ca­reer paths.’’

To en­cour­age chemists into in­dus­try once they have cho­sen their de­gree, and to in­form them bet­ter about their ca­reer prospects is cer­tainly part of the equa­tion — but all con­cerned agree that it is in schools that the profile of tra­di­tional science dis­ci­plines needs to change. This is the em­pha­sis that the Fac­ulty of Science at Syd­ney Univer­sity is tak­ing, ac­cord­ing to the dean of science, Pro­fes­sor David Day.

‘‘ Our em­pha­sis is on link­ing with schools through out­reach pro­grams and train­ing teach­ers in core sci­ences. We cur­rently of­fer schol­ar­ships to core science grad­u­ates en­rolled or re­cently grad­u­ated to do a masters in teach­ing. It is as much an aware­ness cam­paign as any­thing — to let science grad­u­ates know that teach­ing is a vi­able ca­reer op­tion. We have a joint pro­posal with Univer­sity of Queens­land and Charles Sturt Univer­sity in with the min­is­ter to ex­tend this pro­gram na­tion-wide.’’

‘‘ We want to ad­dress the per­cep­tion of science in schools and en­sure that the teach­ers are in plen­ti­ful sup­ply. We are also mak­ing sure that peo­ple un­der­stand that a science de­gree is not just about a ca­reer in science, it gives you the same sort of gen­eral em­ploy­ment skills that arts de­grees are known for — com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills, prob­lem solv­ing and so on.’’

To Prof Rae, a chang­ing per­cep­tion of science is be­ing led by in­sti­tu­tions such as the Monash Cen­tre for Green Chem­istry, which con­sid­ers how to limit the en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age caused by many chem­i­cal pro­cesses — such as toxic sol­vents. He also sees a growth in de­mand for chemists in new fields of re­search and in­dus­try.

‘‘ Take the wa­ter in­dus­try — there is a lot of chem­istry in­volved in wa­ter re­cy­cling and stream man­age­ment, for ex­am­ple. Where stu­dents can see such ar­eas where they can have a stim­u­lat­ing ca­reer while con­tribut­ing to con­tem­po­rary is­sues, that will re­vive in­ter­est in the dis­ci­pline.’’

As Prof Day points out, the skills short­age in science dis­ci­plines is not con­fined to Aus­tralia. It is a global is­sue. ‘‘ Aus­tralia is used to be­ing able to im­port skills when it has found gaps. That is not go­ing to be a so­lu­tion to the short­age of sci­en­tists.’’

We have to work out how to grow our own.

Pic­ture: Bob Fin­layson

Reach­ing out: Anne Sabine says find­ing lab tech­ni­cians with even six months’ ex­pe­ri­ence is prov­ing to be dif­fi­cult

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