It’s no secret that New Zealand has a critical digital skills gap and the importance of recruiting graduates with a strong Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) qualification base is well known.

The education sector initiatives to encourage STEM participation are laudable.

Unfortunately, despite cross-sector efforts, New Zealand employers struggle to recruit the right people, according to a New Zealand Digital Forum report.

What’s more, the Institute of Directors found only 30 percent of directors think their boards have the digital leadership to lead the digital future of their organisation.

The OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook 2017 shows New Zealand has a strong science base, high public research and development expenditure and world-class universities.

While New Zealand performs comparatively well on traditional competencies and capacities to innovate, we struggle to convert them to outputs.

This singular focus on STEM is not enough. Globally, the talk has shifted to the importance of the education sector bringing together the arts with STEM, cue another acronym, STEAM.

Justin Gray

A popular estimate from the World Economic Forum is that 65 percent of children entering primary school today will work in jobs that don’t even exist yet.

In such a rapidly changing employment market, businesses need to innovate, and to be innovative, they need people who break the mould, who have expertise in the arts, dialogue, design led thinking and technology, science, engineering and math.

The Harvard Business Review said in August 2017 that a liberal arts degree was “tech’s hottest ticket”, with arts graduates knowing how to use and interpret with the vast amount of information online better than other graduates, due to their skills, wide reading and knowledge, and their ability to make informed criticisms of its content.

If New Zealand’s universities jumped on this now, partnered with industry, and created STEAM courses reflecting industry skills demand, it would help close the digital skills gap, and ensure the country remains globally competitive.

Many students who have strengths in the arts, will likely need more instruction on how they can employ artificial intelligence and machine learning in their professions, and conversely, students who excel at STEM subjects, will need to be able to understand people, cultural experience and how to communicate – skills learnt in the arts.

Under a STEAM framework, arts education exists in conjunction to – or completely blended with – STEM studies. The cultivation of ideas and passions, calculated risk taking, how to work through failure, problem finding and problem solving are the focus.

While 65 percent of jobs are still an unknown, we can see the leaders of the future will need to continually innovate to remain competitive and the adjacency of STEM and the arts is crucial.

Unfortunately, New Zealand lags behind other countries when it comes to collaboration between firms and the higher education sector, as identified in a 2017 OECD study.

New Zealanders punch above their weight in creative fields and you don’t need to look far for evidence of this in New Zealand-made movies, books and music on the global stage.

There is real potential for successful partnerships between New Zealand creatives and technology professionals in to the future. Yet for our workplaces to be future-ready, strong links between university and industry are vital.

One example of a successful industry and university partnership is the Victoria Entrepreneur Bootcamp, an opportunity for students at Victoria University of Wellington to take their business ideas and test them to see if they are viable. Accenture is one of several partners of the scheme, providing workshops and mentoring to challenge the thinking of Bootcamp’s young entrepreneurs and keep them up to date with the latest innovations and trends.

In 2013, Stanford University recognised the importance of fusing the arts with all its subjects. California’s famous innovation factory, which counts Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google, Reed Hastings of Netflix, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger of Instagram, and Peter Thiel of PayPal among its alumni, has discovered that arts are the future, according to a report from The Economist.

Now, all undergraduates at Stanford, regardless of their course major, must take a class in creative expression, and can choose from classes such as ‘Laptop Orchestra’ to ‘Shakespeare in Performance’.

The biggest difference between Apple and all other computer companies is that Apple always tried to marry art and science, with the original MAC team having backgrounds in anthropology, art, history and poetry.

Closer to home, New Zealand’s property investor Sir Bob Jones famously prefers to employ arts graduates for their broad knowledge and curious minds.

Well-known New Zealand arts graduates include former Prime Ministers Bill English and Helen Clark, film maker Taika Waititi, and actor Sam Neill. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also has a communications degree.

If we consider the leaders of the future will not only have to carry out their everyday remit, but continually innovate, analyse data, manage evolving technology, and communicate effectively, then a marriage of STEM and the arts is essential. When you bring the two together, then the greatest innovations are possible.

Justin Gray is the country managing director for Accenture in New Zealand.

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