Karen Andrews is the only female Federal MP with an engineering background, and continues to use her core engineering skills in politics. Create spoke to Andrews about her career and how to encourage more students to study STEM subjects.
create: Why did you decide to study engineering?
KAREN ANDREWS: When I was eight years old, I remember looking at the washing machine and watching the agitator move clockwise and anti-clockwise. I liked the order and the symmetry of it, and I was fascinated about how you could make that happen. From there, I was always interested in trying to fix things and figure out how they worked. From those early days as an eight-year old, I think I was destined to do engineering.
create: There must have been very few women in engineering when you started?
KA: There were two female engineers in my degree, and we were the first two female mechanical engineers from the Queensland University of Technology to graduate. Women certainly were in the minority. What concerns me is that many years later, women are still in the minority, and there is no need for that to be the case.
“Engineers should be proud of the work that they have done to get themselves through university in what is considered to be a difficult discipline and to be out there working as engineers.”
create: You were one of the only female engineers supervising males. Was this particularly challenging for you?
KA: Throughout my time working as an engineer, I was treated as an equal. I never even thought about the fact that I was a female doing engineering. I thought of myself as a relatively inexperienced engineer who had a lot to learn from the people I worked with. That had a very positive impact on my dealings with the people around me, because I came in prepared to listen and learn.
create: What did you enjoy about engineering?
KA: I enjoyed planning for the routine maintenance, and breakdown maintenance. I loved being part of working out why something had failed, getting it going as soon as possible, and then looking at what we could do to prevent that breakdown happening again.
create: After six years or so of engineering work, you moved into industrial relations. Why did you make this career change?
KA: When I graduated, we didn’t spend a lot of time dealing with industrial relations and how to manage people in the workplace, so I did a postgraduate in industrial relations and I really enjoyed it.
After I completed the post grad, I went on to work in the metals and engineering industry. It was a bit of a transition for me. But even though I went into quite specialist industrial relations, I never left engineering behind.
create: You also ran your own company for a while. Can you tell us a bit about that?
KA: I used my industrial relations skills to set up my own business. That was a great experience to understand everything that’s involved in establishing and operating a business. I had to use my engineering skills to streamline my admin processes to minimise the time that I was in the office not earning money and maximise the time that I could be out generating income.
create: How did you use your engineering and industrial relations experience in politics?
KA: I’ve always been very process-oriented, so I deal with most things on a project basis and I plot it out from start to finish. I’m still also very structured. I look for evidence in my decision-making and I stick to a process – all core skills of an engineer.
create: There are very few engineers in politics right now. Why do you think engineers shy away from politics?
KA: I don’t understand why, because they have rigor. Many engineers have taken on study in engineering because of their interest in processes, systems, procedures, and making sure that we’re actually following a particular process design model.
Those are skills that would be invaluable to politics, but I don’t think people necessarily see politics as a direct career progression from engineering. I’m going to do my best to change that.
create: You’ve spoken of the need for more students to study STEM subjects. Why is it important to you?
KA: We know that about 75% of future jobs are going to require skills in science and maths. But there are a declining number of students, particularly in year 12, taking those subjects.
“I want to make sure that we have opportunities for engineers to move into other areas during a downturn.”
If we don’t increase those numbers, we won’t be able to meet the domestic demand for future jobs. It takes a long time to change behaviours, but we need to start in the very early years to influence students and their parents to take an active interest in science and maths subjects. It’s important that we start focusing on our young kids – four and five-year-olds – but we also know that at the end of primary school and at the beginning of secondary school, a lot of students are turned off those subjects. We have to find out why and address the reasons for that.
create: Is there any reason why students, particularly in Australia, don’t want to get involved in STEM subjects?
KA: I think there’s a range of reasons. There’s a bit of a lack of support for the teachers, so they don’t have the confidence to deal with questions that arise from science and maths subjects, whereas teachers might be more comfortable in the arts. We also have parents who don’t have confidence in maths and science at school, so they don’t encourage their children to pursue these subjects when there are alternatives. Then when they get to the more senior years, students look for what’s going to give them the best possible score to keep their options open to going to university. Sometimes that means that they don’t pursue what are considered to be the harder subjects of maths and science. But I think the only reason you would call those subjects harder is because of the understanding that you need to have to solve a maths or science problem.
create: Does the government have any concrete action plans to change this?
KA: There are already some things on the way, such as the National Innovation and Science Agenda.
We also made some announcements that are quite critical. One is that we would provide support during the kindergarten years to ensure our students have the opportunity to experience science and maths from a very early age. We don’t expect four-year-olds to be learning their times tables or be able to recite the periodic table, but we do want them to develop a love of science and maths that hopefully will take them forward.
We’re also doing some work to provide support for programs to assist with digital literacy. Computer coding is something that we’re focusing on, and we’re also providing support to promote more women in STEM subjects.
create: What are the biggest challenges facing engineers in Australia today?
KA: Because technology is changing so rapidly, it’s about making sure that engineers are up-to-date with what’s happening with various uses of technology. Engineering is also a profession that is impacted by what’s happening in mining, so we’re in a downturn at the moment. I’m confident that at some stage that will pick up and there will be work for engineers at mining sites again, but we are going through a transitional phase. I want to make sure we have opportunities for engineers to move into other areas during a downturn.
create: Is engineering still an important part of your professional life?
KA: I will always be an engineer first and foremost, and I’m very proud to be an engineer. Engineers should be proud of the work that they have done to get themselves through university in what is considered to be a difficult discipline and to be out there working as engineers.