|The 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 regulato