Tech skills plan looks familiar

James Riley
Editorial Director

The Australian Workplace and Productivity Agency today released a report that outlines in detail what the industry has long known: That Australia produces too few ICT graduates, that it is too reliant on 457 visa-holders to plug skills gaps, that too few women are attracted into ICT jobs, and that tech sector jobs suffer from an image problem.

Much of this ICT Workforce Study 2013 could have been written at any time in the past 20 years. These problems are as perennial as as the grass (as my hippie friends like to say.)

But the AWPA also starts to piece together a roadmap for overcoming the long-running skills shortfalls that have plagued the ICT sector. Yes, there are some things Government can do it says (yawn), but the agency also puts much of the responsibility for addressing these issues squarely back on the industry.

And that’s a bit refreshing.

Of course it’s recommendations don’t go nearly far enough for those of us who want to see the ICT sector put at the centre of the economy. But to the extent that it gives profile to seemingly intractable problems, the report is certainly welcome.

The AWPA was known as Skills Australia until earlier this year. It is an independent statutory body that provides advice on emerging workforce skills needs to government through the Industry department.

The re-named AWPA was given the additional responsibility by former Minister Chris Evans for administering the National Workforce Development Fund.

The resurrection of Kevin Rudd as leader has changed the deckchairs at the top, meaning the agency is now overseen by Brendan O’Connor as Minister for Skills and Training. This is a good thing. As a junior minister he reports through Kim Carr as Minister for Industry, Innovation, Science and Research, which is not so great. Not a fan.

Much the report is spent identifying the scale of the problems, which is only marginally helpful. The industry is well acquainted with this stuff. Having identified the problems, the agency puts forward 16 recommendations.

The great shame is that many of these recommendations are responses we have heard before, and call for the involvement of the same old industry association involvement we have heard before.

It is somewhat deflating to see the disconnect between the expectations of many in the ICT sector, compared to the response of this mainstream federal agency. Where the ICT sector looks to blue skies and green fields, this response seem to reach for patch-ups and catch-ups.

If you read the PWC ‘moonshot’ report on the tech startup sector commissioned by Google and its partners, you will see the same problems identified. But the primary goal is very different.

The AWPA recommendations lack ambition. It seeks to separately address siloed challenges, rather than to re-frame the way we think of this industry as a nation.

And alarmingly, many of its recommendations call for the ICT sector’s largely ineffective industry bodies to take charge of change.

Maybe the Australian Computer Society (ACS) and the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) were powerful, cohesive advocates back when mainframe computers still roamed freely on earth – but more recently years they have been hopelessly out of step. And they are not supported by the very industry they represent.

Now that Kevin Rudd is Prime Minister again, I suppose we should all start using the term ‘root and branch’ again. That is, for the the ICT sector to thrive – and by extension for the rest of the economy – we need a ‘root and branch’ reform of the way we deal with the ICT sector. And the way we think about ICT.

The ICT sector should be a national priority, and the structure of the government that supports it should reflect that priority. The current mish-mash of portfolio responsibilities is confusing.

And the industry itself needs to get serious about how it approaches government. The Australian ICT sector is poorly represented by too many narrowly-focused, under-resourced and ineffective industry groups – political fiefdoms that have not carried enough weight.

The industry will not get an effective whole-of government approach to the ICT as a national priority until it can get better organised. StartupAus is a case-study in this kind of niche self-interest that muddies the waters. That Google would launch yet another industry group into order to wield influence over it is very typical of this thinking.

Perhaps the Australian Workplace and Productivity Agency ICT Workforce Study is the starting point where things start to change.

Certainly it is a substantial document. I will be writing on its findings in the coming weeks. Its recommendations range from putting forward strategies to improve the image of ICT jobs, to introducing new technology curriculum in secondary schools, to strategies for making recent ICT graduates more work-ready.

In the meantime, it was great to hear AWPA chairman and former IBM Australia/New Zealand managing director Phil Bullock on ABC radio’s AM program this morning talking about the challenges facing the ICT sector. Bullock is a doer.

And this is the kind of mainstream, national exposure that the tech sector rarely gets. So it certainly stands out when you hear it.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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