Opinion: Does HR have a role in navigating the STEM skills gap?

by External25 Nov 2015
A shortage in STEM skills is plaguing the workforce – particularly for employers in the tech sector. But what can HR do to help? Fiona Sweeney, the Australian and New Zealand director at Pluralsight, shares her thoughts.
For more than two decades, Australia enjoyed continued economic prosperity on a scale rarely seen in developed countries. But now in the aftermath of the GFC and with the end of the mining boom, slowing growth and falling productivity have illuminated some challenges we must confront.
If Australia is to compete in a global economy increasingly built on data and technology, it must build a workforce that excels in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Unfortunately, the country is falling behind on a number of key STEM indicators: the number of Year 12 students studying STEM subjects is declining, STEM university completions have plateaued and businesses are struggling to find STEM employees.
If such shortages exist now, imagine the challenges that will arise as the number of roles requiring STEM skills grows. Whilst a holistic approach is necessary to truly address the STEM skills gap in the long term, organisations are increasingly looking to HR leaders to propose immediate solutions.
The upside to upskilling
We know that it is important as a society to foster a greater STEM culture from an early age. But what can HR professionals do to address the lack of appropriately skilled employees now?
For many reasons, upskilling existing employees is undoubtedly the preferred option. Not only are you tapping into a pool of talent that has already demonstrated their value to the company, but you’re also more likely to boost employees’ job satisfaction and build a strong company culture that can attract further talent who shares the organisation’s values.
Yet the old methods of upskilling are not necessarily the best for today’s STEM workforce needs. We all know how time-consuming and disruptive off-site workshops and training sessions can be. Static, one-time-only classroom lessons cannot deliver on the needs of today’s worker.
The modern employee craves immediate access to information so they can resolve work-related problems when they need to, whether on the job or on the move. Nowadays workers want up-to-date dynamic content and knowledge from diverse specialists. They want it in a searchable format of their choice so they can digest a short burst of content to help solve problems quickly, and on a device of their choosing.
On-demand learning addresses all of these preferences by giving employees control over their own upskilling. In addition, learning at the point of need helps individuals save time, discover more effective processes, be more productive and increase their learning retention.

Not just for techies

The need to improve STEM capabilities doesn’t only apply to the tech team—it’s important for a large part of the workforce, HR included. This is particularly true as the connection between HR and big data grows ever stronger. 

More and more businesses are relying on analytics to inform their decision-making, and they will increasingly expect HR to do the same. Cost-savings is certainly a driving force—just think how much an unsuccessful hire costs your organisation—but the potential benefits of using big data extend well beyond economics.  

As an HR professional, you already possess a huge amount of data, whether related to salaries, training program outcomes, turnover rates or annual retirement numbers.

Rather than using this rich information strictly for reporting purposes, deep analytics can transform the data into usable insights for predicting future behaviours and formulas for success.

Familiarity and comfort with analytics will soon become a must for HR leaders. This doesn’t mean you need to become a tech expert, but a solid understanding of the fundamentals of data-driven tools is key to being able to utilise them to their fullest potential. The great news is, you can upskill in this area quite easily. Courses on the subject abound, including the type of on-demand courses already mentioned. 

HR professionals have a unique and important role to play when it comes to analytics. With the potential for huge amounts of personal information to be mined in the service of predicting future success, HR must be the leading voice for balancing privacy with the benefits of big data. Sound knowledge of the way analytics can and should be used in your organisation is crucial to ensure information related to potential, current and former employees is used appropriately.
The way forward
Forward-thinking companies need their HR teams to drive a fundamental shift in the way the organisation structures and delivers learning and development opportunities for its employees. And with more than 93% of companies now using online learning courses of some description, it’s clear technology is already taking an increasingly important role.
However, not all online learning solutions are created equal, and HR professionals need to consider what employees need and want, as well as what will best fit the organisation. Here are some things to consider to ensure you choose the right solution for your company:

• Is the content varied enough to serve all skill levels?
• Is the content easy to navigate?
• Is it up to date? How often is it reviewed and updated?
• Has it been developed by experts in the field?
• What support is available?
Fostering a culture of continuous learning will not only help your organisation to sidestep the STEM skills gap, but also to become better equipped to face the workforce changes we cannot yet anticipate.
About the author
Fiona Sweeney is ANZ Director for Pluralsight, a global leader in online learning for professional software developers, IT specialists and creative technologists.


PwC, “A smart move: Future-proofing Australia’s workforce by growing skills in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM)” April 2015. http://www.pwc.com.au/about-us/stem/index.htm

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