Solving the skills puzzle

Solving the skills puzzle

AIIA board members Philip Cronin and Ian Birks on tackling the talent shortage in the local ICT industry

The Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) is one of several bodies looking to tackle the shortage of talent plaguing the local ICT industry. Board members Ian Birks (director of Ideas International) and Philip Cronin (general manager of Intel ANZ) shared some ideas with ARN.

How good a picture has the AIIA managed to compile of the current industry skills shortage?

Ian Birks (IB): The prominence of the issue has been increasing during the past 2-3 years. AIIA has been working collectively with government, the ACS [Australian Computer Society] and other organisations. The ICT Skills Foresighting Study conducted by DCITA [Directory of Community, Industry and Tourism Australia] in 2006 was significant in moving the issue along. This led to the establishment of the Industry Leadership Group (ILG), which is jointly chaired by the AIIA and ACS. It includes a lot of the vested parties, such as government departments that need to be involved in this discussion, provides some level of funding for the research work that needs to go on and has led to the creation of some very powerful statistical work during the last nine months or so.

Everybody knew there was a problem but there wasn't a lot of good data around to help us quantify it and get to the root of some of the issues, such as predicting investment cycles and which skills will be in greatest demand. There's a natural lag with graduate intake so you need to think ahead. There's been something of an improvement in graduate intake for 2008; it's not stellar change but it does look as though the diminishing enrolment trend we've seen since 2001 has bottomed out. It's not going to change the world overnight but it's a start.

One of the things we are really focused on is the concept of ICT career attractiveness. What is it that influences career choices in what is effectively a population shortage, not just an ICT skills shortage? How do we get the best and brightest engaged in ICT? That's a really big challenge. We now have a single consistent career attractiveness message, originally developed through Multimedia Victoria, called 'Start here, go anywhere'. It's a marketing promotion plan that's being run at education open days. AIIA is trying to launch an ICT careers week at the end of July as a focal point for various universities. Some successful programs we've been running in Victoria and Queensland have seen us busing high schools students into a central location for a day focused on the ICT industry and careers. They are addressed by young people that have gone through ICT study and got interesting job outcomes from it. There's also an exhibition about what can happen when you work for a company like Intel, Microsoft or IBM. One of the problems is that a lot of students can't really relate to what it means to be out there in the workplace. They know ICT is a good career but not a lot of them can visualise what they might end up doing. These careers days give them that mental picture.

Was the dotcom crash a problem in terms of confidence in the industry?

Philip Cronin (PC): If you extrapolate that period, prior to the rise of dotcom there was little understanding of ICT. Dotcom demystified it in many ways because it was in the papers and on Wall Street. There was a buzz around the industry and all of a sudden there were paper millionaires. In 2001 there was an intake of more than 10,000 students into ICT university courses in Australia. Then the bubble burst as all bubbles should and parents, who were coming at it mystified by ICT, saw it go away again relatively quickly.

There was a sharp intake of breath and many parents decided little Johnny with his maths degree should become an accountant. The accounting profession has a very strong alumni program and it's recognised as a job that allows you to work anywhere. We've taken a leaf from that in some respects but there's a need for broader marketing to demystify some of the various strands of IT professionalism. You can be a break/fix professional with a science degree or a code-cutter for ASIO [Australian Security Intelligence Organisation] and yet the two will never meet. You don't find that with a CPA [Certified Practising Accountant] because a CPA in my company or Ian's [Birks] is probably cut from the same cloth. We have to figure out the segmentation within the industry. The problem is well-known and identified, it's quantified reasonably well and our job now is to bring it further up in the minds of career decision-makers, the schoolchildren themselves and their parents.

Generation Y gets a lot of bad press for being transient and not wanting to stick at anything. Is that something you hold stock with?

PC: I have nephews and nieces that are Generation Y but I think it's just a generalisation that's too easy to cast around. I see their usage of ,b>technology very differently to any other generation and you wonder if we are casting our eye over that with an older person's viewpoint. I don't think that's at the root of the problem - it's a mix of population change, demographics, opportunity within the industry being less visible than it was. You can only work to break down each of those.

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