Maths should be compulsory at school: our future jobs depend on it

Maths should be compulsory at school: our future jobs depend on it

Maths should be compulsory at school: our future jobs depend on it

Updated 6 February 2018, 6:40 AEDT

Why are Australian technology companies hiring workers from overseas, or else basing themselves offshore to attract talent?

As society becomes more technology dependent, careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (collectively known as STEM careers) are the future.

But with our outdated school curriculum and poor participation in maths classes, Australia has insufficient STEM-qualified workers to fill the skills demand, and local companies are increasingly looking offshore for technology workers.

Urgent change is needed to stem the flow of technology jobs moving offshore.

We are in the midst of a transition from a product and resources-led economy to one based on technology and innovation. Correspondingly, Australia is undergoing a dramatic shift in our workforce composition, with automation increasingly replacing manual labour.

At the beginning of the 1980s, one in three Australians was employed in the largely manual industries of agriculture, mining or manufacturing; this has declined to one in 10. The decline will only continue, with the Committee for Economic Development of Australia estimating that 40 per cent of all jobs that exist today will be replaced by automation.

As these jobs disappear, they are being replaced by new jobs and new industries grounded in technology. These changes have created tremendous opportunities for tech-savvy entrepreneurs.

Australian tech company Atlassian made headlines in 2015 when it listed on the Nasdaq at a value of $8 billion.

But Atlassian's journey was not easy. Co-founder Scott Farquhar has publicly identified the shortage of local technology-skilled workers, with Atlassian bringing in foreign workers and opening operations in the US to fill the gap.

The shortage is not unique to technology firms; other technology-dependent industries such as banks, insurers, telecommunications providers, and even Government departments have a heavy dependence on migrant, offshore and outsourced technology workers.

Make mathematics compulsory at school

Atlassian is not unique: Australia's biggest businesses have a heavy dependence on migrant and offshore technology workers.

Australia's chief scientist Dr Alan Finkel has noted that: "It is critical that qualifications at all levels prepare students for the breadth of roles and industries they might pursue."

Sound numeracy is a critical enabler of any STEM career, so the natural feeder subject for a career in technology is mathematics.

The high school maths curriculum varies wildly from state to state.

Students in NSW, Victoria and the ACT are not required to study maths at all in Years 11 and 12. Tasmania is the only state to require basic maths study throughout high school, while students in Queensland and South Australia are required to complete only one unit of maths.

Students in the Northern Territory are only required to study maths in Year 11, while students in Western Australia are required to undertake one STEM subject during Year 12.

So unfortunately, by the time children reach Year 12 in most of Australia, their only compulsory subject is English.

Sound literacy, the ability to write, and the power to persuade are all critical skills. However, by the time students reach Year 12, English classes focus primarily on literature. This is a severe disconnect from the reality of skills-based employment.

Unfortunately, one in every four students chooses not to study maths during years 11 and 12, contributing to much lower STEM university enrolment rates than Australia needs.

Maths study trends are also driving inequality in our workforce mix. Female students are less likely to elect to study maths than male students, leading to a disproportionately low number of females studying STEM qualifications at university.

Only one female for every five males ends up becoming STEM qualified. This means that a schoolgirl making the decision to not study maths, as early as high school, is unknowingly precluding herself from access to the jobs with the highest growth rates and the highest future earning potential.

Maths matters more elsewhere in the world

Many other countries have already realised that maths is the base subject of our future workforce.

Countries which have made maths compulsory until the end of high school include Sweden, Japan, Korea, Russia, Finland, Taiwan and Estonia.

Unsurprisingly, students from every one of those countries were better than Australian children in mathematics, as measured by the 2016 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the OECD's international student assessment ranking system.

Statistically, these children are more likely to select STEM qualifications as they leave school. As they begin to enter the professional workforce, they will unfortunately be far better equipped for the roles of the future than our own children.

Local firms will continue to experience difficulty finding locally skilled STEM resources and these lucrative jobs will continue to be taken by international workers.

Without changes to our outdated school curriculum, Australia will continue to experience STEM-skills shortfalls.

We need to make maths a compulsory school subject, to increase the availability of STEM careers to our children and to stem the flow of our technology jobs offshore.

David van Gogh leads Australian technology and risk advisory firm Amstelveen.