Right chemistry missing
Industry faces huge problems recruiting scientists, and it is a worldwide problem, writes Kirsten Lees
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.
Reaching out: Anne Sabine says finding lab technicians with even six months’ experience is proving to be difficult