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Diversity the key to fixing space’s skills shortage

A prominent figure in the local space industry has insisted the sector must become more diverse to close the skills gap.

Ahead of the AusSpace24 Summit, Anntonette Dailey, an adviser to industry on government space relations, said the shortage spans the entire sector and is higher than its international counterparts.

At the summit, she and a panel of speakers will discuss how the space sector could find another 15,000 workers by 2030, the challenges this presents, and solutions to bridge skills deficiencies.

“The skills gap is not limited to engineers or STEM – it’s also in the whole ecosystem that supports the technical side of space,” Dailey told Space Connect.

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“This includes accountants, lawyers, designers, developers. Moreover, from my background and experience as an engineer, I can see that we have very few space-qualified technical specialists.

“This is where our greatest gap is in terms of having demonstrated experience of flight heritage.”

The domestic space industry, she added, lacks employees with sufficient experience in building, designing, launching, and maintaining satellites or equipment in space.

Lost opportunities

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The difficulties now, though, are a world away from when Australia was seen as a global trailblazer in space. In fact, Australia was only the fourth nation in the world (after the Soviet Union, the US, and France) to build and launch a satellite from its own soil into orbit in 1967, when it launched a scientific satellite from South Australia.

“We had the opportunity early on, but unlike our other fellow OECD countries, which went on to build very strong space industries, Australia slowed down,” Dailey said.

“It moved forward again with the establishment of the Australian Space Agency in 2018, but this means we need to achieve 60 years of development in a much shorter space of time.”

Losing qualified, experienced Australians to other countries also widens the skills gap. Convincing them to return to Australia would require the government to signal that it prioritises the domestic industry and supports local businesses that create jobs.

“For example, instead of signing contracts with overseas counterparts to provide services for Australia, the government could encourage the development of that technology in Australia.”

How to open up the space industry

Another measure that could plug the skills gap is welcoming employees who may not have previously engaged in the industry because it was not conducive to them. She advocated for greater diversity in STEM to attract people with strong capabilities.

“I’m a big advocate for opening up space to its full spectrum to bring all that comes with diversity, including innovation,” she said.

For example, the federal government recently released its final 11 recommendations for the Pathway to Diversity in STEM Review to “create structural and cultural change” to increase the diversity of Australia’s STEM system.

A long-term strategy based on the recommendations could lead to coordinated actions to increase diversity and include people currently underrepresented in STEM education and jobs, the report stated.

For example, women only represent 15 per cent of the STEM workforce despite participation increasing by 68 per cent since 2012, according to the Department of Industry, Science and Resources. In addition, less than 1 per cent of First Nations people held a university STEM qualification, while less than 5 per cent held a VET STEM qualification in 2021, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Among the recommendations in the review is for the Australian government to establish a suite of diversity in STEM programs, including embedding best-program design elements across programs, changing the current Women in STEM program suite, and establishing new programs that address barriers for underrepresented cohorts.

Another recommendation was for the government to “preference First Nations scientists and researchers applying for government funding for projects that affect or draw from First Nations knowledges and knowledge systems and working with First Nations communities to develop further ways to elevate First Nations Knowledges”.

Collaborative approach needed

“The statistics show massive room for improvement,” Dailey said.

“Women have not traditionally engaged in STEM activities, and those with qualifications often move out of the industry and don’t use those skills.”

The solution could lie in employers implementing genuine measures to ensure that the workplace is safe for people from diverse backgrounds to work in.

“People need to feel like they can propose ideas and not have it instantly rejected. In space, you need people to think differently because that’s the only way we can catch up on those 60 years of imbalance in experience and skills.

“We need strong leadership from the Australian government to bring it all together so that the onus is not just on individual organisations to solve the problems.”

To hear more from Anntonette Dailey on how the space industry could fill the skills gap and become future-ready, come along to the Australian Space Summit & Exhibition 2024.

It will be held on 28 and 29 May at ICC Sydney.

Click here to buy tickets and don’t miss out!

For more information, including agenda and speakers, click here.

Adam Thorn

Adam Thorn

Adam is a journalist who has worked for more than 40 prestigious media brands in the UK and Australia. Since 2005, his varied career has included stints as a reporter, copy editor, feature writer and editor for publications as diverse as Fleet Street newspaper The Sunday Times, fashion bible Jones, media and marketing website Mumbrella as well as lifestyle magazines such as GQ, Woman’s Weekly, Men’s Health and Loaded. He joined Momentum Media in early 2020 and currently writes for Australian Aviation and World of Aviation.

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