Chapter 5. Moving a local economy to higher value added skills – STEMship Case Study

The following case study, based in a major regional centre in New South Wales, demonstrates how partnerships between local community, industry and training sectors can deliver a multi-disciplinary approach to vocational education and training to equip individuals with digital literacy skills in emerging STEM occupations.



STEMship is Australia’s first vocational education and training pre-employment programme focusing on the development of STEM skills at a technical level and the creation of a highly skilled pool of talent (STEMship, 2017[54]). The programme was developed by Regional Development Australia (RDA Hunter) and the NSW Department of Industry (Training Services NSW), and delivered by TAFE NSW. Pivotal to the programme’s design is an industry-led approach, which provides a VET pathway for students to move into employment, highly technical apprenticeships and traineeships, higher-level Certificate IV, Diploma qualifications, or University. 

Skills for a knowledge economy

The Hunter Region is Australia’s largest regional area, hosting Australia’s seventh largest city, Newcastle. It is also Australia’s largest and most diverse regional economy, with an output of AUD 41 million in 2017 (equivalent of 3% of Australia’s), generated by a diverse range of industries, including services (71% of the region’s output), mineral resources (11%), manufacturing (9%), construction (7%), and agriculture (2%) (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016[55]; Australian Government Department of Jobs and Small Business, 2018[56]).

During the last two decades, employment in the Hunter Valley region (excluding Newcastle) has moved away from manufacturing and agriculture, to services (with the largest increase in employment recorded over almost the last 20 years recorded in the Health Care and Social Assistance industry, followed by Mining, Construction and Professional, Scientific and Technical Services) (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2018[57]). Almost half of Australian start-ups are located in NSW, and Newcastle intends to increase its share of this market and becoming a hub for start-up business (Startup Muster, 2015[58]).

This means the local economy is becoming more and more knowledge oriented, and will increasingly rely on the development of higher-level skills to support growth through increased competitiveness. Local leadership, through RDA Hunter, is aware of this challenge, and has encouraged and facilitated industry engagement in skills development through a range of initiatives, including the Hunter Innovation Scorecard, Hunter Innovation Festivals, the ME Programme and the Business Innovation Hub.

Challenges within the current VET system

As part of their workforce development strategy, RDA Hunter has been facilitating partnerships between industry and the education and training system for the development of STEM skills since 2009. Initially, the focus was on secondary education, but industry partners expressed the need for a more specific focus on technical education. For many of the available STEM-related roles, industry partners prefer to recruit employees with technical skills and industry experience rather than academic knowledge.

This demand for a technical STEM workforce is consistent across Australia. Between 2006-11, jobs requiring STEM skills grew about 1.5 times the rate of other jobs (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2015[59]). However, finding an appropriately skilled workforce has proven somewhat difficult. In a survey of employers undertaken on behalf of the Australian Government (2013), 40% of respondents reported difficulty in recruiting STEM-skilled technician and trades workers. While 20% of employers reported a shortage of graduates, around a third reported a mismatch between the skills required and those of job applicants (Prinsley and Baranyai, 2015[60]).

In the same survey, while over two thirds of responding employers thought relevant work experience was an important candidate attribute for STEM roles, only around a third of respondents were offering structured work placements to applicable students. Employers indicated dissatisfaction with post-secondary education institutions (just over 50% were actually satisfied with their experience). Concerns regarding the poor level of industry engagement to develop business relevant STEM courses were highlighted.

Need for multi-disciplinary approach

Regular pre-apprenticeship programmes direct students towards a specific occupation, which traditionally tend to be associated with particular industries. For example, if a student is engaged in a pre-apprenticeship programme in Carpentry and Joinery, they will complete almost half of the core units of competency of a full Carpentry and Joinery apprenticeship over a total period of 15 weeks.

One of the issues with this model is that there is not a focus on the development of multidisciplinary skills. Local employers are clear that emerging technologies, markets and new ways of working, mean the roles they need to fill increasingly involve a broad spectrum of expertise. For example, in engineering fabrication, workers need to be able to deal with heavy and light fabrication, understand design principles, and how the business works in a management and marketing sense.

Consultations undertaken by RDA Hunter also suggest that potential employees are more attractive when they have well-developed digital literacy and soft skills (e.g. communication, team working, complex problem solving, creativity and innovation). Even though the current VET system is designed to enable a degree of skills transferability, through the development of a set of core ‘employability skills’, it does not do so in a multidisciplinary way; these skills are developed within qualifications in occupation-specific ways, limiting their transferability (Snell, Gerkara and Gatt, 2016[61]).

Technological, economic and societal trends are pushing towards the need to focus training on skills rather than occupations/jobs, so that skills are applicable to multiple workplace contexts and industries. Studies stimulating this discussion are gaining traction in Australia (Allen, Brasil and Manley, 2017[62]; Foundation for Young Australians, 2017[63]).

Another issue with the current model is that, because industry normally does not have much control over training plans (meaning that training is not necessarily relevant and/or students can leave pre-apprenticeship programmes with little industry understanding/experience), students completing pre-apprenticeship programmes, who would have a considerable portion of their apprenticeship certificate already completed (therefore entitled to be hired with the wage of a 2nd year apprentice), could be less attractive/competitive than someone with less qualification.

Programme approach

STEMship is a pre-employment programme, offering a multidisciplinary VET pathway for secondary school graduates to enter highly technical apprenticeships and traineeships as an alternative to direct entry to University. The programme was developed in 2016 by RDA Hunter which co-ordinates the programme through extensive consultation with local industries, and delivered by Hunter TAFE (the partner RTO). In 2017, the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet joined Training Services NSW (Department of Industry) as one of the funders.

Participants are recommended by their schools and can be either students who have completed Year 10 and are willing to sign out of school to participate or Year 12 school leavers looking to gain technical STEM skills.

Figure 5.1. Designing STEMship

Source: Supplied by Author. Authors elaboration based on interviews with STEMship

Participants are exposed to a combination of work placements and post-secondary courses (units of competency) focusing on developing STEM capabilities, digital literacy, soft skills, and understanding of current industry workforce requirements. In-class training follows a multidisciplinary design, which allows students to gain skills from multiple training packages (19 units of competency across 7 different training packages). Learning is project-based, meaning students develop skills from different units of competency through a single project.

At the beginning of the programme, students visit all the industry partners to get a sense of what they do and their workplace expectations regarding ways of working. This interaction helps students identify which industry partners they would like to work with during the work placement component. Each student will work in one or more industry partners over a total of four weeks. Placements are flexible and depend on students’ interests but also accommodate partners’ needs in terms of numbers of students. Throughout the programme, participants receive integrated mentoring and pastoral care from the STEMship Coordinator (RDA Hunter) and key personnel within TAFE in a mix of individual and group settings to ensure they are progressing as expected and to understand and address specific needs to help them complete the programme.

Figure 5.2. STEMship elements

Source: Supplied by Author. Authors elaboration based on interviews with STEMship.

Programme Outcomes

The programme is in its second year, and it is still small in scale. Despite its relative youth and size, it has already generated positive outcomes for participants, most of which have engaged in apprenticeships after the programme, and industry participation has been increasing, with STEMship™ now seen as a key workforce development programme in the Hunter region. The programme constitutes an opportunity for students to complete a multi-disciplinary VET pre-vocational pathway; get exposure to a variety of industries via site visits and targeted work placements; develop highly attractive/employable digital and soft skills; gain awareness of current and future employment opportunities; get a taste of a variety of new and emerging industries and technologies. The programme also includes a full qualification in Certificate III Engineering-Technical.

For industry, the programmes allows them to develop a workforce that meets their requirements/needs; have access to a talent pool of work ready employees with STEM skills and capabilities; and promote their industry and career paths to prospective employees/apprentices.

For government, the programme enables them to promote VET pathways and emerging industries to schools, students and parents; attract talent to VET opportunities available under their ‘Smart and Skilled’ funding, especially in the ‘Jobs of Tomorrow’ (scholarship) qualifications; and create jobs and further enterprise opportunities in the Hunter region in high paying industries.

Table 5.1. Outcomes measured at 2 months following programme conclusion



Number of students


Number of students












Of those who completed

Of those who completed

Continued to an apprenticeship





Continued to other VET





Source: Based on interviews regarding data provided to the author by STEMship

Lessons learned

The pilot programme in 2016 and its subsequent iteration in 2017 saw the development and refinement of an innovative STEM based programme. There have been several key learnings from the first two iterations. Clear communication channels between STEMship™ students, parents, schools, RTO and industry partners are essential; A strategic approach is now taken to align course delivery dates with industry recruitment periods; The RTO component delivers better outcomes when it includes holistic assessment as well as integrated STEM skills application (i.e. multiple skills taught and assessed concurrently through project-based learning); and the timing of programme completion should ideally align with industry recruitment schedules. However, this is often challenging when engaging with a variety of business types and sizes, from start-ups, to SMEs to multinationals.

Drivers of success

Local leadership through RDA Hunter

RDA Hunter’s economic development agenda focuses on advancing the region’s innovation network and increasing the region’s international competitiveness. To be able to achieve this, its Smart Specialisation Strategy articulates the importance of increasing the pool of the Hunter region’s workforce with STEM, entrepreneurship and digital literacy skills (RDA Hunter, 2016[64]). Since 2009, through active engagement with business, universities, Hunter TAFE, schools, government agencies and community leaders, RDA Hunter has a long track record of developing and delivering successful STEM education and workforce development programmes for students from primary to tertiary education. The maturity of these programmes has allowed RDA Hunter to gain trust and respect within the secondary school system in the region and encourage students to follow STEM based career pathways. It has also enabled RDA Hunter to effectively articulate industry needs to government and the training sector.

Partnership with industry

With the region’s economy moving towards knowledge-intensive sectors and industries that traditionally do not engage with the VET sector, as well as a growing number of start-ups and SMEs, having industry actively involved in the design of the programme, has been key to attracting a diverse range of industry partners. Since students completing the programme are trained to industry standards and have had personal and professional engagement with industry partners, industry involvement also ensures enhanced transition for students into the workforce, therefore leveraging further outcomes for programme participants. The programme also aligns with industry policy at both state and federal levels, which facilitates engagement and partnerships with industry and government.

Implementation challenges

Current VET funding and delivery models

The programme is gaining traction in the Hunter region but scalability will depend on government funding (the programme is currently run on a contractual basis). A key challenge is aligning the traditional VET funding and delivery models to a multidisciplinary training model. Currently, government VET funding aligns to specific qualifications, which are occupation-based. Funding for multidisciplinary training already happens at university level, where students can graduate with a substantive proportion of elective units. Something similar would have to be adopted in the VET sector for the project to expand.

The way RTOs structure training delivery to align with the occupation-based model (i.e. single training package) also means that adopting the new model might be financially and administratively challenging. Delivering multiple training packages at once means drawing on more resources (i.e. trainers, equipment) per student than what is required by traditional VET courses in Australia. During the two years of STEMship™ delivery, TAFE NSW has been able to restructure resources, schedules and systems in an effective way, but other RTOs that might join the programme would also need to go through this challenging process of resource allocation.


[62] Allen, R., N. Brasil and C. Manley (2017), Future skills and training: A practical resource to help identify future skills and training, Priority Skills Resource.pdf (accessed on 29 May 2018).

[57] Australian Bureau of Statistics (2018), Detailed, Quarterly, cat. no. 6291.0.55.003, four quarter average of original data.

[55] Australian Bureau of Statistics (2016), 1381.0.55.001 - Research Paper: A Review of Selected Regional Industrial Diversity Indexes, 2011,[email protected]/mf/1381.0.55.001 (accessed on 30 May 2018).

[59] Australian Bureau of Statistics (2015), 4250.0.55.005 - Perspectives on Education and Training: Australians with qualifications in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), 2010–11,[email protected]/Lookup/4250.0.55.005Main+Features12010%E2%80%9311?OpenDocument (accessed on 29 May 2018).

[56] Australian Government Department of Jobs and Small Business (2018), Skill Shortage List New South Wales, (accessed on 5 June 2018).

[63] Foundation for Young Australians (2017), THE NEW WORK MINDSET: 7 New Job Clusters To Help Young People.

[60] Prinsley, R. and K. Baranyai (2015), Occasional Paper Series Issue 9 - STEM education and the workplace, (accessed on 29 May 2018).

[64] RDA Hunter (2016), Smart Specialisation Strategy [S3] for the Hunter Region: A strategy for innovation-driven growth.

[61] Snell, D., V. Gerkara and K. Gatt (2016), Cross-Occupational Skill transferability: challenges and opportunities in a changing economy, (accessed on 30 May 2018).

[58] Startup Muster (2015), Startup Muster 2015 Report.


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