Thousands of STEM spots to be funded in AUKUS push

Kat Wong |

South Australia will need to double its skilled workforce by 2040 to deliver nuclear-powered subs.
South Australia will need to double its skilled workforce by 2040 to deliver nuclear-powered subs.

Thousands of scientifically-inclined students will have their university courses financially covered as the government attempts to nurture the workforce needed to build the long-awaited AUKUS nuclear submarine fleet. 

The government will fund 4000 commonwealth-supported places in science, technology, engineering and mathematics bachelor degrees across 16 Australian universities from 2024.

A quarter of them have been designated for institutions in South Australia, where the submarine construction will be based.

Defence Minister Richard Marles said the government’s $128 million investment over the next four years is critical to shoring up the much-needed workforce.

Richard Marles speaks at a press conference (file)
Richard Marles says the government’s investment in education will be critical. (Richard Wainwright/AAP PHOTOS)

“The Australians who will help to build and maintain our conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines are at the heart of this historic, nation-building project,” he said on Wednesday.

Acting SA premier Susan Close said the extra university places were a vote of confidence in the state’s shipbuilding capability.

“These places mean we can immediately start building the skilled workforce that will sustain our existing and future defence capabilities,” she said.

Universities Australia executive Catriona Jackson welcomed the investment but called on the government to assure any places left unfilled in 2024 will be rolled over to the following year.

“A scenario in which places are lost would not be in the government or Australia’s interest and we will continue to engage with government on this,” she said.

“The planning, construction, operation and maintenance of our nuclear-powered submarines will not be possible without the skilled workers our unis educate or the research they undertake.”

SA will need to more than double its current skilled workforce from 3500 workers to more than 8500 by 2040 to deliver the trilateral submarine fleet, according to a defence report released in November.

Acting SA Premier Susan Close
Susan Close says extra university places are a vote of confidence in South Australia’s capability. (Matt Turner/AAP PHOTOS)

To support this, the government will also aim to engage 27,000 South Australian students in STEM education throughout primary and high school while preparing university students for the workforce via paid apprenticeships and an early careers program.

Experienced workers will be given the opportunity to upskill through mid-career transition programs.

The recruitment effort has proved a challenge so far as intense competition for labour and shortages already plague the industry.

But Mr Marles said the push will help give more young Australians an opportunity to go to university and contribute to “one of the most significant industrial endeavours”.