Tech skills shortage requires real leadership and real action


Simon Bush
Contributor

So much has been written about the current tech skills shortage in Australia and the growth in the number of tech jobs across the economy, and the data is irrefutable: One million people will be employed in tech jobs by 2025 if we can find them. And the war for talent is real.

But the tech skills shortage is not a new phenomenon, its just that it is growing. What has been less clear from people calling out the shortage is … what are the practical policy solutions to address these shortages.

Simon Bush
AIIA head of policy and advocacy Simon Bush

What is a new challenge for government policymakers, however, is that they don’t need to support traditional job creation, but rather they need to support skills development in the existing workforce, as well as ensure that those people entering the IT workforce have the appropriate skills demanded by employers.

Australia has done very poorly over the past decade in pulling through talent from school leavers into IT higher education. And the higher education (HE) providers – by their own admission – don’t do a fantastic job at ensuring student completions, or in making sure that those students that complete their studies are ‘job ready’.

This seems to be largely as a result of the inability to either respond to the needs of industry, as well as the time-lag between getting these signals and modifying qualification programs due to institutional bureaucracy.

In 2020, 20,160 Australian students commenced IT degrees, but we should only expect around one third to complete their qualifications. The drop in available international student enrolments exceeds any additional domestic enrolments based on latest available government data.

By contrast, the AIIA recently ran a Polish trade delegation where we were told that Poland produces 80,000 tech graduates each year. As a result, Poland doesn’t have a tech shortage and they export their people around Europe and the world at a premium. Australia can and must do better.

What we are currently seeing at the coal face is that some industries like the building and mining sectors are now targeting not school leavers, but school aged children down as far as year 9 to place them into the vocational training and appropriate apprenticeship pathways.

The hunt for our childrens’ talent has begun. Globally, some advanced economies that are meeting the demand for ICT skills are seeking out talent from primary school age, not unlike looking for early potential sporting champions.

Moving the discussion from the truisms of needing more digital skills to come up with practical solutions is somewhat harder.

So, what solutions can government and industry do now to ensure that we have the digital talent to grow our economy? My suggestions include:

One: establish an industry-led micro-credential framework that defines in-demand skills through a single and common skills framework. The more recent initiative to develop a framework driven by the Department of Education (DESE) reinforces the current status quo by having reform driven by the education sector rather than employers. These reforms are glacial as a result.

We need a new career pathway model that transverses the school leaver to late career journey. By taking this approach whether the career entrant is going from school straight into employment or via vocational training or higher education is irrelevant.

Two: Credentials and career pathways must be driven by a common skills standard adopted by employers and can applied across the entire career and education spectrum. Currently there is competition for developing duplicative frameworks where we need an agreed standard such as the SFIA (Skills Framework for the Information Age).

Three: Support for Apprenticeship Degrees for Higher Education to help ensure that learning is work-based and attributed skills are verifiable by employers. The practical reality is that education providers cannot deliver skills unless the knowledge gained from education is demonstrated in a workplace context through application.

Work Integrated Learning models have some way to go before they can achieve this. This is one reason why simple and short ‘bootcamp’ models resonate with employers – they are defined by verifiable skills through application in work context.

Four: Work with industry on demand forecasting to understand what technical skills are required for the near future, the type of training industry is after and co-design the courses. Australia needs a formal national profiling capability.

Five: Do better at marketing a digital career to school leavers – this is a joint industry and government problem and solution.

Six: To assist with the above, and given that technology impacts every industry and is a cross-career required skillset, reform the Australian high school curriculum to have a digital economy component across disciplines, so that students understand the importance of digital and be aware of the opportunities in taking on a tech career.

Students also need to be informed that a digital career is more than just being code cadets and entering robotics competitions as important as they may be.

Seven: Ensure that the visa classifications are up to date and meeting industry skills shortages. And ensure that tech skills visa processing comes down inside 30 days rather than the up to 90 days that government is currently takes.

We need to reduce the complexity and delays that are creating a supply side constraint, which makes access to skills expensive and inequitable for small businesses trying to keep pace.

If Australia is going to keep pace globally, and truly fuel our economy by supporting innovation and entrepreneurialism then the skills agenda to meet the growing technology crisis needs to be multifaceted.

It requires both a short and long-term strategy, and it needs to be developed in collaboration with the stakeholders being the industry, employers and the education providers in all their various forms.

The opportunities are exciting, and the problems do have solutions with employers being centrally involved.

More creative and agile policy thinking as well as federal leadership is required to cut through vested interests in the vocational training and higher education sectors, or the definition of insanity will prevail: doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result.

Simon Bush is General Manager for Policy and Advocacy at the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA).

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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