Solving the Aussie ICT skills shortage

By Dylan Bushell-Embling
Thursday, 11 July, 2013

Solving the Aussie ICT skills shortage

The Australian ICT sector is facing a potentially critical shortage of local skills, due to factors ranging from negative stereotypes about the industry to the offshoring of entry-level positions.

AIIA CEO Suzanne Campbell noted that applications for tertiary studies in ICT have declined around 55% Australia wide over the past 10 years.

“The issue has grown in momentum over the last 18 months, during which time it has been highlighted as a global problem and recognised in Australia as a potentially acute issue,” she said.

The Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency (AWPA) has just published a report into the ICT skills gap. Written in collaboration with industry and the education sector, the report defines the problem and recommends a range of potential solutions.

Skills shortage

The report identifies a series of barriers that make increasing the supply of domestic ICT specialists a challenging task.

The first is that ICT still bears the legacy of outdated negative perceptions about the sector being full of desk-bound, isolating and repetitive jobs. Furthermore, current ICT education in schools often reinforces these negative stereotypes by presenting an outdated view of the industry.

IBRS advisor Alan Hansell agreed that some areas of IT face a negative perception that they are full of ‘geeks’ and that these perceptions may dissuade some school leavers from pursuing a career in ICT. “Even when they do enrol they may be faced with lecturers who are full-time academics and whose business experience is out of date,” he said.

The report also finds that many students pursuing a career in ICT find it difficult to secure employment after graduating, due to the limited number of entry-level positions available. Many employers also complain that tertiary-level graduates don't possess the mix of technical, business and communication skills they require.

The sector is meanwhile still dogged with low levels of female as well as mature age employment - around two thirds of ICT professionals are aged between 25 and 44 years.

“In previous years many recent graduates started their career in systems support roles, eg, desktop or call centres. These roles became a stepping stone to more challenging and rewarding ones. With the movement of these support roles offshore, recent graduates are finding it harder to get a start,” Hansell said.

Due to the fast-moving nature of technology, any IT professionals who take a break for more than three years must also reskill themselves - at their cost - to be attractive to employers, he added. This may serve as a disincentive to mature-age workers.

The report also finds that ICT industry involvement and investment in skills development remains low. While many large ICT organisations have internal workforce development strategies, there is limited collaboration between companies to build the pool of skills among potential employees.

Hansell noted that most IT professional training initiatives are driven by vendors and held outside of business hours.

“In this environment there is little room for employer participation,” Hansell said. The exception is “in post-graduate courses, which employers typically support as it is where IT acquire new business thinking skills - something a vendor-sponsored course cannot deliver”.

Bridging the skills gap

The AWPA’s report also proposes some potential solutions to these problems, developed in collaboration with government, industry and the education and training sectors.

These include careers promotion products and investments in the professional development of ICT teachers in order to challenge negative perceptions of the discipline, improve the quality of teaching and excite students in ICT careers.

To improve the suitability of tertiary graduates for entry-level positions, AWPA recommends rethinking the current approach to work-integrated learning, suggesting an apprenticeship model for ICT.

More broadly, the report recommends establishing a digital literacy component in every undergraduate degree, to ensure workers have the functional knowledge of ICT required to work with ICT specialists.

Other key proposals include a skills conversion program aimed at graduates from other disciplines designed to increase the quality of workers with ICT-intensive skills and expanding the Australian Computer Society (ACS) professional development program to domestic students.

AWPA notes that many of the proposed strategies would not require significant additional funding.

ACS spokesperson Thomas Shanahan welcomed the report, noting that any of the potential solutions “could make a positive difference to the industry”.

“While we recognise the role of government in education, the role of business must also increase. Education cannot be viewed as a short-term expense but must be seen as a mid- to long-term investment in the ongoing success of any enterprise,”  he said.

AIIA’s Campbell said one initiative already underway is the Digital Careers Program, a project designed to engage years 5-10 students to increase the awareness of ICT and sow the seeds for an internationally competitive ICT workforce.

The AIIA, ACS and National ICT Australia (NICTA) are all involved in the program, which is based on the Queensland Group X pilot project. The federal government has allocated $6.5 million in funding over the next four years.

“The program, which will be matched by funding from the university sector and the ICT industry, is the single most important action that needs to be taken to drive ICT skills development in Australia,” Campbell said.

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