Where WA’s future will stem from

The rise and fall of once dominant people, companies and economies is common place. These days, if you think of the most amazingly successful, be wondering how well placed they will be a decade from now.

10 years ago, the top website in the world was MySpace. It was the first social media darling, quickly to be overtaken by Facebook. Who uses it now?

For the first time ever last year, the top 5 companies in the world, by market value, were all tech companies: Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft. 2 of them were formed in the 1970s, 2 in the 1990s and one in the 2000s. They all stem from the US.

Four of these five companies dominate our landscape here in Western Australia – even though we are about as far away from their headquarters as you can be…

  • Apple devices are everywhere. We have 2 iPhones and 2 iPads in our household alone. (10 years ago, these devices did not exist.) We purchase nearly all of our music through iTunes.
  • Google is ever present. It’s how we search for anything, and 2 of the other smart devices in our household have Google-operated platforms.
  • Facebook is all pervasive for the parents in the household, while the children are on Snapchat, Instagram and Youtube. The last 2 of these are owned by Facebook and Google respectively.
  • We have 3 Microsoft  PCs in the house running Microsoft software and operating systems.
  • Only Amazon is not (yet) a dominant player. Amazon online retailing is coming to Australia this year, and it could also become a force to be reckoned with in our house. In the US, 50% of all online commerce goes through Amazon. I have a feeling they will make a huge impact here, maybe not immediately, but do check back in 3 to 5 years.

Which gets me to thinking about my teenage children, the environment they are growing up in and the world of work they will shortly enter. If the rise and fall of organisations teaches us anything, it’s that the businesses that cannot sustain relevance fade away, and the wildly successful dominant players better be re-imagining their future before the rug is taken out from under them. Reinvention is the key, keeping on top of the trend and perhaps getting in front (if possible) is crucial to survival.

Western Australia has an economy almost like no other. It has a massively successful resources industry, which grew to three times its size over the 2002-2012 period. It’s still growing, but is in another phase now (production, rather than building). So much income is earned from it, and from our State, almost half of the country’s entire export income comes from WA (even though we represent just over 10% of the population). The resources industry is not going away!

If I liken the WA economy to a major organisation, then during the very strong years (the decade from 2002), it was time to make hay while the sun shone (yes, we did that) while also looking out for the next success story before the end of the current one (err….).

It’s easy to look back in hindsight to the one trick pony mentality of the 2000s. Here in 2017, we are where we are. So what now?

One thing is clear: we need a diverse economy, in every sense of the word. Not only do we need to draw on the rich and full resource of all working people, at the managerial, C-suite and board level, we need to develop our other industries to take up the slack. Tourism, health, technology, agriculture, aquaculture, education … these are areas of great potential. The trouble with many of them is that every city or region in the world could claim to have some prowess here, or aim to be a world leader. In only agri/aqua-culture could we claim to have some innate natural advantage.

If we’re to lead in tourism, then we need to have a reason for the Asian and global tourist to visit our State, and to return. In health and technology and education, we need investment and smarts and hyper-intelligent people to be drawn to live, work and stay here (including our brightest).

There’s one thing we could do that would be a true investment for the local economy; one thing that could make a significant difference long term, and might save us as a State. It’s not a hopeful, wishful thing, it’s an absolute necessity if we are to continue to enjoy our great lifestyle.

The answer is a meaningful and rigorous devotion to world class STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) education for our children – from primary school all the way through to university (and then beyond, through continuous education). We have to commit ourselves to extracting maximum value from the best resource of all – our brains, well, the brains of our children. As you and I are not the future of the economy, yet our school children are, then it’s to them (and their education) we must turn.

It’s a sad fact that the numbers of children taking STEM subjects in our schools has been dropping, and the quality of STEM teachers is also moving in the wrong direction.

The average number of science subjects taken by Year 12 WA students declined from 1.41 to 0.66 between 1986 and 2012. (Report: Optimising STEM Education in WA Schools, TEAC/ECU, 2012). The average number of maths subjects taken declined from 0.92 to 0.69 between 1992 and 2012. There is also a lack of STEM qualified teachers (too often teachers are teaching out of their training area just to get someone in front of a class), and we don’t even have a database of what qualifications STEM teachers currently have. If you don’t measure the problem, you can’t manage it.

Just think about this. The average year 12 student does not even take a maths or a science subject. In other countries, such as one of our closest neighbours Singapore, where I taught for 7 years back in the 1990s, students record among the best results in maths and science globally. There is serious investment in education by the government, and a drive (by students and parents) to get the best results. It’s embedded in the culture, and in many ways Singapore, with few natural resources to speak of,  has had to invest in its people to survive, and thrive.

It’s always been the case that economic growth derives from investments in education, science and technology. Which brings us back to where we came in. If the 5 richest firms are all US-based, and are deriving more and more income here, paying little tax, and employing few people relative to that income, where are the Aussie and West Aussie firms coming from, who will employ our children in 5, 10 or 15 years time? What jobs will be there waiting for the 20-somethings of the 2020s and 2030s? If the STEM skills are the ones future employers will require, are we going to get serious about STEM education?

We all have a role here, not just government. More of our bright young things should teach, at least during their 20s. More of them should take STEM subjects, not because they’re easy and may improve an ATAR score (they’ll likely not), but because they’re important. Especially girls. We need diversity all the way through our businesses, right to the top and across all industries.

Parents, colleagues, managers, employers – I’m talking to you.

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More reading on STEM:

Transforming STEM teaching in primary schools, Prinsley & Johnson, Dec 2015

Optimising STEM education in WA, TIAC, ECU, 2013

Image Credit: Lorenzo G Alarcon Elementary