Preparing the Hunter for a strong future is a key focus for economic development organisation, Regional Development Australia (RDA) Hunter. As the region’s representative in the national economic development network, it has identified four priority areas of focus that underpin regional growth and international competitiveness – innovation, investment, infrastructure and workforce development. RDA Hunter recognises that, in a global economy, innovation-driven growth and sustainable industry development requires a home-grown, STEM skilled workforce.

Maintaining an eye on the future – on economic mega-trends, advancements in technology, industry developments and their impact in the Hunter – has helped the organisation help the region keep pace with and prepare for the impact of change, particularly in workforce skilling. And, its consolidated RDA Hunter’s role as regional intermediary and advisory to the Federal government.

RDA Hunter’s flagship event, the STEM Workforce Conference, is an annual opportunity to gather stakeholders from across its programs for a big-picture, interactive discussion about the future and ways in which its programs can better contribute to a skilled and industry-ready workforce. It’s an opportunity for thought leadership, macro thinking and collaboration, and it enables the identification of region-wide, shared priorities.

The 2019 STEM Workforce Conference brought together 135 representatives from industry, education, government and business to discuss NEXT GENERATION is NOW. It was skilfully facilitated by national leader in social entrepreneurship and innovation, CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians, Jan Owen AM,

The changing nature of work, the economic advantages of building a homegrown workforce and STEM-skilling were key themes examined by international, national and local keynote speakers, panellists and students from a variety of organisations and sectors at the day-long event held in Newcastle on April 9.

The Conference was headlined by Mr Jonathan Barr, the Paris-based Head of the Employment and Skills Unit of international think-tank, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development). Mr Barr gave the audience a wide-ranging global view of mega-trends in skilling, accessing education, place-based policy making and digitalisation. He discussed how better skills lead to better jobs; how employment policy, economic development and skills must work together; and how vocational education leads to higher employment outcomes.

Mr Barr expanded on the vocational education concept during the global launch of his report, ENGAGING EMPLOYERS AND DEVELOPING SKILLS AT THE LOCAL LEVEL IN AUSTRALIA whilst in the Hunter. He cited RDA Hunter’s STEMship program as OECD best-practice and evidenced its tailored approach to industry-led workforce development as key to its success.
He said, “STEMship provides an interesting example of how local partnerships between regional development organisations, industry, and the TAFE sector can encourage more apprenticeship training. By working closely with employers in STEM-related fields to drive curriculum development, (STEMship) was able to identify the necessary skills and align training design with local industry demands in new and emerging occupations to prepare for jobs of the future.”

Siemens’ Head of Human Resources and HR Regional Speaker in ASEAN-Pacific, Ms Nicolette Barnard, gave an inspiring presentation about the future – how digitalisation will affect every person and every workplace. She made the clear and simple point that we’re already living and working with robots – we walk around with them in our pockets and handbags every day. And she said that although technology will impact certain jobs, the world will see many more millions of jobs created than are lost.

An industry panel featuring representatives from the Hunter’s defence prime contractors: BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin Australia, Boeing Defence Australia, as well as NSW Health Pathology and Department of Primary Industry continued the discussion at an industry level. Panellists examined cross-sector information sharing and considered how individual companies could work together to fill the ‘collective workforce well’.

The University of Newcastle’s recently appointed Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Alex Zelinsky AO. Professor Zelinsky overviewed his plans for the University – an inside-out campus, work-integrated learning experiences and a STEM Centre of Excellence.

And, in a regional first, the Conference featured an inspiring panel conversation with the Hunter’s young people. Jan chatted with five representatives from the Hunter’s primary and secondary schools, TAFE NSW and University of Newcastle about their education experiences, their hopes and dreams for the future, their ideal workplace environment and what they’d like us as parents, employers and their mentors to understand about them. They were honest, impressive and motivating and their message was simple – they want to be understood. In the words of 10-year-old Breanna from Heaton Public School, ‘we just want our parents to understand everything’.

It was a perfect summation of the day and a simple take-away message, “Next Generation is NOW”. In a world where we have robots at our fingertips, where anything is possible, the Conference highlighted the value of working together – listening and collaborating – so that we work smarter and leverage the ‘edge’ that technology provides.