The role of the information technology industry supporting other parts of the economy has been under-appreciated up until COVID-19, according to the Australian Information Industry Association chief executive Ron Gauci. But with the pandemic and the enforced lock-down, the sector is hopefully being seen through new eyes.
The nation has dramatically embraced the tools that have enabled work-from-home continuity for many businesses, not-for-profits and government department and agencies.
That widespread adoption of new tech and the changed work practices that have come with it should be viewed as an opportunity to accelerate the shift to new digital models, Mr Gauci said.
“I would like to think that as we come out of this hibernation and into the recovery period that we can create a new normal,” Mr Gauci told InnovationAus for the Reconstruction series.
“There is a real opportunity now for us to use technology in a far smarter way [in the future] and far more efficiently – and not necessarily be desk-bound or confined to our old practices,” he said.
The AIIA, which for 30 years has been Australia’s peak body for the tech industry, says government should be applauded for its response in dealing with COVID-19 and the measures taken to ‘flatten the curve’. The results speak for themselves, Mr Gauci said.
He said the industry appreciated government’s recognition of tech employees as a essential service workers and said the support that the AIIA had received for its Australian Business Continuity initiative, which was promoted be several ministers has been welcome.
The JobSeeker changes and JobKeeper arrangements were important for the information industry. While parts of the technology sector had not been adversely impacted by the crisis – such as providers of collaboration tools and productivity software for example – it was not the case the whole industry was untouched.
Many technology projects in both the public and private sectors had been put on ice, negatively impacting local small and medium sized enterprises. Ensuring that these tech SMEs – “the life-blood of the technology economy” – survive would be critical to the post-COVID economic recovery.
Mr Gauci said a key area of focus for the AIIA for the recovery was on R&D, and particularly on the development side of R&D, which he said remained critical for the sector, particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises. The group wants government to have another look at the incentives.
The second area is in skills. “We already have a skills shortage. What we need to do is a genuine professionalisation of our industry and to focus on developing the skills needed for us to become a lot more self-sufficient and to be able to cater to the demands of the technology.”
Mr Gauci said the technology skills shortfall is 200,000 and growing. “We would like to see some consideration to how we reskill our workforce, to create new opportunities.”
While the AIIA rejects recent calls to strictly limit accessing skills from offshore where they are needed, he said there was certainly a case to be made to become more self-reliant in the development of skills for the local sector making the nation more independent as a result.
The response by businesses to the economic crisis that accompanied COVID-19 should point the way to building the economy in the longer term, taking the momentum of digital adoption and see where it can be applied across the rest of the economy.
Australia’s ranking at 93rd in the world in last year’s Harvard’s Atlas of Economic Complexity is something the nation must get on top of.
“That’s a poor report car for a country like Australia, which prides itself on technology and early adoption and [being the] ‘clever country’ that we’re supposed to be. There is a real opportunity for us here,” Mr Gauci said.
He nominated artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and cybersecurity as three areas where Australia has outstanding talent and the potential to develop new businesses and new wealth for the nation.
“We should be far more effective as an economy in recognising where technology can [help drive] everything else that we do” Mr Gauci said.
“As a industry [the information industry] influences every other sector of the economy. Until now, we have probably been under-appreciated as a sector in terms of our overall value to the GDP of this country,” he said.