Part of the problem might also be that people are put off by the continual learning culture required in IT.

Where is the IT crowd?

Why are fewer people interested in working in the tech industry?

By Lucia Stein

If you’ve been following tech developments lately you’ll know the industry is facing a bit of a skills shortage in Australia.

According to the Government’s Cyber Security Strategy the number of people taking up information and communications technology degrees has halved over the last decade.

But Data61 chief executive and Australian technology entrepreneur Adrian Turner says there has been an increased demand for certain types of IT professionals from tech companies.

“As more Australian emerging tech companies begin to scale up, they’re requiring more talent and at the same time, multinational companies are looking to Australia to do primary R&D and product development,” he said.

So, what is causing this decline?

According to some experts the problem can be linked back to:

  • a lack of basic IT skills and coding being taught in schools
  • a failure in recruiting by universities
  • tech industry culture a deterrent for young graduates and
  • skills mismatch

In short, it could be one of these or more likely, a mixture of all of them. Let’s take a look at why this might be the case.

Put coding in the curriculum

Last year, leading technology entrepreneur Matt Barrie told the Knowledge Nation summit the falling number of people involved in the tech industry was “an absolute crisis”.

His solution was to focus more on teaching technology in schools.

One solution that has been proposed is to focus more on teaching technology in schools. Pic: ABC News/Lexy Hamilton-Smith

“In Estonia, 100 per cent of publicly educated students will learn how to code starting at the age of seven or eight, first grade and continue all to the age of 16 in high school,” he said.

While this is definitely an issue Australia can improve on, Mr Turner says it’s just one area where skills can be influenced.

“So, we’re beginning work into developing a robotic curriculum for high schools and primary schools. If you look at other countries, for example in Israel, they are teaching cyber security to 14-year-olds,” Mr Turner said.

But the problem extends beyond a failure to teach tech to kids in schools.

Not selling it right

One of the biggest problems is ensuring ongoing development of tech talent at universities, and better communication of what students can expect from a career in IT or cyber security.

Mr Turner points to the example of data science, which might not sound that effective on its own — but when applied to healthcare, data science can result in extending people’s lives and improving their quality of life.

“So often times, context isn’t there for the student. … And we can all do a better job at having a national discussion about new industries that are underpinned by IT and data that Australia could be world leading in … and explain the challenges of it as well,” he said.

What do employers want?

A research fellow at Graduate Careers Australia says their figures show the IT sector in general hasn’t been “red hot” since the GFC.

Bruce Guthrie says “an awful lot of international students” completed degrees, but were then unable to secure work.

“But that might all come down to a mismatch of skills between what employers are after and what universities are teaching,” he said.

This is something Mr Turner has also highlighted, adding that more tech employers are after “greater problem-solving skills” and “creativity”.

And we still need more women

Men still dominate the tech field — with the latest data, from 2011, showing 84 per cent of people with a STEM qualification were male. So, could a lack of female recruits also be part of the problem?

Yes, but this is shifting.

“Historically, because of the rise of video gaming early on in IT, it did become a male-dominated profession,” Mr Guthrie said.

“That’s a problem for Australia and that’s a problem for the profession because there is a huge amount of talented women that aren’t thinking about IT as a career when we need them to be.”

But there are also more programs in place that are targeted at encouraging more women into the tech industry, including Girls in Tech in Australia, so there is hope more women will enter this field in the future.

Could a lack of female recruits also be part of the problem? Pic: Reuters/Erin Siegal

What about industry culture?

Part of the problem might also be that people are put off by the continual learning culture required in IT.

The tech industry requires retraining, reskilling and vocational training, according to Mr Turner, but the issue is that Australian culture does not promote this kind of continual learning.

“Australia needs more of a growth mindset, which is about continual learning and improving and also about not passing judgement when things don’t work out — so treating everything as a learning experience,” he said.

But he says this is also shifting, and believes that new learning structures will emerge where the “whole career cycle of people” will be looked at and compared with data to better understand where individuals are best suited to work and develop skills.

“I do think we’re going to move to more of a concept of lifelong learning  where the educators have more of an incentive to make sure that the skills their students are learning are valued by the market.”

So, how do we fix this?

According to Mr Turner one of the solutions is investing in skills at universities.

At Data61 he says they are collaborating with a number of universities and co-investing in a number of programs to ensure that “rich talent” is supported.

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