Coding skills, a vocational gift beyond STEM


Simon Tyrrell
Contributor

Australia will likely still fall short of meeting its near-term tech skills needs with its conservative approach to STEM and vocational education.

Longer-term, this approach threatens to saddle graduates with skills last seen on the production lines of the Holden Commodore and the Ford Falcon.

Dave Sharma writes persuasively in InnovationAus that we’ve got a growing demand for tech jobs, which can be done from home I would add, and a lot of people who have lost their jobs thanks to COVID-19.

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Simon Tyrrell: Coding skills do not require a computer science degree

“If we can provide the skills and training needed to meet these new jobs, we will solve two problems at once,” Sharma writes. “We will help get people back into work, and we will provide the workforce needed for a growing industry.”

I could not agree more.

But Australia’s governments have embraced STEM courses at the expense of arts and humanities, while reviewing innovative vocational curriculum into the ground.

The result will be an increased number of graduates who can only just code (some of them can’t even do that well).

Coding will become a blue collar job as artificial intelligence steamrolls it. Everyone talks about the automation of jobs. Name something that is programmatic by design, pattern based, repetitive and could be written by the computer. It’s coding, and AIs are already doing it.

There is evidence to suggest that this is cyclical and more broadly experienced across the tech sector. A couple of Harvard academics writing for the National Bureau of Economic Research in the US concluded STEM education provides a spike in wages that tapers off as technology catches up with rote skills.

“We find that the initially high economic return to applied STEM degrees declines by more than 50 per cent in the first decade of working life,” the pair wrote. “This coincides with a rapid exit of college graduates from STEM occupations.”

The world looks to the US and Silicon Valley for the model of how the relationship between the tech and education sectors is supposed to work. Whenever I go over there and talk to academics, they tell me “STEM is dead”.

A recent IRESS-led recommendation on behalf of a handful of Australian tech companies for a nationally accredited tech apprenticeship scheme would be a much better policy alternative to making people go through a degree. If a 17-year old doesn’t have to go to university to build a house, we can do the same with coding.

But we still need to talk about problem solving. Because however these kids end up in tech companies, whether it’s through an apprenticeship or a degree, they’ll still struggle when they enter the workplace and be forever vulnerable to technological disruption without it.

The federal government briefly added ‘A’ for arts to STEM to create STEAM. This was an attempt to respond to calls like this one for graduates that were more creative.

In our experience, all STEAM did was create a bunch of group projects where the nerds would build a robot that doesn’t do anything useful then throw it to the arts student to paint. It’s not multi-disciplinary.

But at least it was an attempt at getting graduates to think more creatively. If we just focus on STEM graduates, all we’ll end up with is a bunch of useless and now ugly robots.

My employer doesn’t even ask for computer science degrees from developers when they apply. In our experience, it doesn’t improve the quality of the applicants.

The reviews of vocational education have been the most concerning from our point of view.

We’ve worked with universities including Swinburne and Monash on course design. Recently we’ve been focussed on an Associate Diploma in Creative Product Development via pathways and vocational education (PAVE) courses.

It’s actually based on a stage production course, because all their units focus on a combination of creative thinking, problem solving, teamwork and designing something for a user group. That’s software development in a nutshell.

But to policymakers, this kind of work flies in the face of what we think the ideal technology industry worker should be – a nerd. And in our experience, the reviews of vocational education have pushed against this kind of curriculum design that helps our industry.

Unless Australia creates a tech skills base that can withstand the ever-changing demands on its workers, we’ll always find ourselves leaning on international markets, once the planes have started flying again.

Simon Tyrrell is chief product officer at Australian enterprise software company LiveTiles.

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