Australian universities are failing to produce enough IT graduates to meet demand, according to figures unearthed from the Department of Education.
Last year, higher education institutes produced 15,530 graduates and post-graduates in information technology, falling short of projections that the industry will need 100,000 technology workers in the next five years.
As a result, Australia could miss out on a golden ticket to become a global technology hub on par with the United States, according to Tecala Group managing director Pieter DeGunst.
“Talent is a massive challenge for us and, more holistically, for Australia,” DeGunst said. “As an industry, I don’t think we’re doing enough to attract people.
“We are missing out on a massive opportunity to be a tech hub. Businesses that are here should not be going to the United States or whatever they have to do. They should be able to build their revenue and resources in-country. We’re not doing enough.”
Breaking down the figures, in 2017, 6,804 students graduated with a Bachelors in the field of IT, while 7,133 gained a post-graduate degree in the field, with 416 of those in research.
In order to meet the demand forecasted by this year’s Australian Computer Society (ACS) Digital Pulse report, the number of new graduates would need to rise by six per cent year-on-year.
There has been increasing concern within Australia’s IT community over finding enough talent with the right skills set for the changing IT and technology industries.
“Finding and hiring talent is one of the key challenges for us,” said Cloudten CEO Malcolm Duncanson. “Our business is the strength of our team. Maintaining and hiring people with the right skills is a challenge: the talent pool is only so big. We’re continuously hiring people.”
For GorillaStack founder Oliver Berger, the issue has not been aided by Australia’s previous succession of leaders, who he believes has “misinvested money from some of our golden years”.
“I believe a more progressive government would have had the foresight to invest in some of those skills,” he said. “There was a hope that [former PM] Malcolm Turnbull would when he came in, but ultimately he got pulled too far into the conservative side to influence any policy investing in a technology culture in the digital age.”
A lot of the issues come down to cultural perceptions, believes Tecala's DeGunst and even a sense of intimidation among Australia’s youth that the IT industry is just for techies.
“In schools, there are not many great programs that help kids understand what a career in technology looks like,” he said. “It’s still really bad.
“There’s a lot of intimidation for people who are maybe not good at coding or with computers. You have many extremely successful people in the industry who are not always technical people. They understand how to apply technology to business, but may not necessarily build a computer for you.
"Those are quite powerful skills. The technical skills will come as well as you progress through the industry," said DeGunst.
“There are so many types of roles: service delivery, project management, sales and marketing. There is such a massive variety of roles and there are many kids who would excel at these. But we’re not getting them interested early enough so they go do a Bachelor of Arts or of Commerce.”
Indeed figures from the Department of Education’s Graduate Outcomes Survey suggest that non-technical roles are an attractive option for IT graduates.
In 2017, of all IT undergraduates looking for full-time work, 73.3 per cent found full-time employment within four months. Of these, nearly 72 per cent of these went into managerial and professional occupations, significantly higher than the 59.7 per cent of all Australia’s bachelor undergraduates.
While those statistics show the breadth of opportunity for future IT students, these do not necessarily help vendors and partners seeking strong technical and product talent, especially as newer technologies like cloud, automation and internet of things become more heavily in demand.
The situation is neither helped by last year’s abolition of Australia’s subclass 457 visa program, which the IT industry had heavily relied on to recruit skilled workers from overseas.
Nevertheless, there is hope to be found in the university figures. In 2016, the total number of IT graduates was 14,273, meaning the number has risen by eight per cent over the last year. Should the rise continue, the country will be well on track to meet the projections for 2023.
Meanwhile, the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) is currently attempting to establish a higher education apprenticeship program for IT students to ensure greater collaboration -- and potentially funding -- between universities and employers before students enter the workforce.
The board’s outgoing special skills chairman Kevin Harris told ARN that the proposal is “currently sitting with the NSW government”.
“The missing link is a continual concern that the graduate from a university is not job-worthy,” he said. “But no graduate has ever been job worthy from day one. But the idea is that from the outset, the employer, the student and the establishment -- with some government subsidy -- works together to ensure the student has the right skills for the job.”
In the meantime, given the IT industry’s tendency to cannibalise each other’s workforce, partners should still be selective with who they hire, despite the shortages, according to InFront Systems’ founder Allan King.
“Good people want challenges and to be able to evolve their skills,” he said. “What we’re finding as well is that attitude is just as important as skills. If you’re the right person, then we’re happy to train you. What we don’t want is to train someone, and then for them to realise they have a new skill, so they take a job for $150 an hour. You need to be selective.”
And for GorillaStack's Berger, sometimes it just comes down to the simplest of tactics.
“Treat your employees with respect and empower them to make the right decisions,” he said. “Make it a good place to work. Once you get a reputation for being that kind of business, this will ultimately have a knock-on effect for acquiring talent.”