Australia’s Office of the Chief Scientist has created a benchmark that can be used to highlight the impact of STEM policy reforms between 2011 and 2016.

Chief scientist Dr Alan Finkel AO today unveiled Australia’s STEM workforce, a 223-page report that uses 2011 Census data to analyse the make-up of Australia’s “STEM-qualified population”.

With the next national Census due to occur in August 2016, Dr Finkel indicated he wanted to have a baseline against which he could visualise the impact of current STEM initiatives and policy reforms.

“We know that STEM will be critical; and yet we know very little about who possesses these skills in Australia, where they work or how their careers progress from graduation,” he said in the report.

The Government is presently pushing strongly to increase science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) capability among Australian workers.

It is primarily doing this through its $1.1 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda – from which several STEM skills projects have already received funding.

The impact of the renewed focus on STEM skills could be revealed in the 2016 Census data, which is expected to be publicly released sometime in late 2018.

Dr Finkel said that the “most striking finding” in his mind when looking at the 2011 data is “the range of occupations that people with STEM qualifications have pursued”.

“We have people with physics doctorates working as financial analysts. We have chemistry graduates running farms and making wine. We have ICT graduates planning cities,” he said.

“There are no limits on what a STEM graduate can do, and we shouldn’t impose them.”

That included encouraging the “most STEM-literate people to pursue only traditional research paths, in universities or public sector research agencies”, he said.

“No clever country would encourage [that],” Dr Finkel said.

“I know from my own experience that the opportunities rarely lie in the expected places.

“Our STEM community, and most of all our young people, should be given every encouragement to find new applications for their skills across the economy.”

The 2011 baseline data also did not support a skew of STEM jobs in universities and government-backed research agencies.

It found 85 percent of STEM-qualified people worked in the private sector.

In 2011, there were 2.3 million people with STEM qualifications in Australia, accounting for about 10 percent of Australia’s population.

“Of the 2.3 million people with STEM qualifications in Australia, 8 percent had a postgraduate degree (doctorate or masters) as their highest level of education, 25 percent a bachelor degree or graduate diploma, 12 percent a diploma or advanced diploma, and 55 percent a certificate III or IV,” the report said.

One area that will be interesting to watch in the next Census data is the jobs growth in STEM versus non-STEM fields.

“Between 2006 and 2011, the number of STEM-qualified individuals in Australia grew by 15 percent, while the number of Non-STEM qualified individuals grew by 26 percent,” the baseline report states.

The baseline report also – unsurprisingly – finds a strong gender skew among people with STEM qualifications.

However, the report noted that “between 2006 and 2011, the number of females with STEM qualifications increased by 23 percent, which exceeded the growth for males at 14 percent.”

Dr Finkel said that preparing students for a variety of jobs and industries was vital to sustaining the future workforce.

“This report shows that STEM-qualified Australians are working across the economy,” he said.

“It is critical that qualifications at all levels prepare students for the breadth of roles and industries they might pursue.”