Information, communications technology skills shortage critical

By Penny McLeod    

The skills shortages visible in Australia’s information and communications technology sector and are expected to become critical by June next year.

The March quarter Clarius Skills Index reveals a shortage of about 2200 computing professionals because of increased demand from resources projects, IT banking projects, anticipated requirements for carbon tax management systems and the rollout of the National Broadband Network.

Industry commentators believe declining enrolments in ICT courses at Australian universities and TAFEs, and a 50 per cent drop over the past decade in the number of domestic students completing IT courses, are exacerbating shortages in the sector.

“We are seeing a very substantial drop in the number of people studying IT at university,” says IT recruitment company Peoplebank’s chief executive officer Peter Acheson. “If you look at forward forecasting, more IT roles will be created; the convergence of business and IT is happening.

“ Yet as IT has become more important to business, fewer people are studying it.”

Australia’s ICT sector comprises businesses engaged primarily in providing computer and telecommunications services, as well as hardware sales and service, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It is the fourth largest ICT market in the Asia-Pacific region after the Chinese, Japanese and South Korean markets, and the 11th largest in the world.

And it accounts for about 4.6 per cent of Australia’s gross domestic product.

Some of the biggest employers of ICT graduates in Australia are international IT vendors, including Microsoft and IBM, and ICT end-users such as banks and government departments.

The most in-demand ICT roles nationally are network engineers (in all states), project managers, business analysts and developers.

“There are also increases in demand in South Australia and the ACT, where government departments are spending up before the end of the financial year,” says IT recruitment company Candle’s executive general manager Linda Trevor.

“Queensland is experiencing shortages in business analysts with the increase in project activity [caused by the floods]. The ACT and WA are attracting the highest salaries, with increases of up to 30 per cent. In other states we are seeing [salary] increases of between 10 and 20 per cent.”

Acheson believes acute shortages in the sector are imminent.

“I would expect, by the end of this calendar year and then certainly by mid next year, we will be starting to see an acute skills shortage in the IT space,” he says.

“There are some pretty big players in the market. Three of the four major banks are doing core system upgrades, which are almost once-in-a-generation projects. The resources sector has been driving demand in IT probably since Christmas last year, and that’s before you even get to the NBN.”

He says the potential for a skills crisis has been heightened by a substantial drop (of 14 per cent a year during the 2001-06 period) in ICT higher education enrolments during the past decade, caused in part by poor employment outcomes for ICT graduates during the economic downturns of the 1990s, early 2000s (the dotcom crash) and the recent global financial crisis.

“Between 2001 and 2003 [after the dotcom crash], a lot of people reappraised their careers, and there was a great exit of IT people.”

National ICT Careers Week chairwoman and IT recruitment company Taylor Coulter’s director Penny Coulter agrees concerns about job security — as well as public perceptions of ICT roles — have turned some people away from the sector.

“Parents of prospective students were wary post Y2K, the downturn and the shift [to moving IT jobs] offshore,” Coulter says.

“There’s also still a perception among young people that ICT is for nerds and geeks, and it is people behind computer screens. But it’s not; it’s much more about customer service.

“Most young people today see IT as a tool and don’t realise that it is the technology behind those tools where the innovation is.”

The sector needs to rearticulate what it means to be an ICT professional, says Michel Hedley, the Australian Information Industry Association’s executive officer. “There’s still a problem within the sector describing what mainstream ICT jobs are,” he says. “Everyone thinks it’s all about web design, but it’s not.”

The rapidly changing nature of ICT has likewise put pressure on the sector. IT workers can quickly find themselves out of work as new technologies render their technical skills all but obsolete, while at the same time professionals with “old skills”, such as Cobol programmers, become coveted. “Technologies are constantly changing and will continue to do so,” Trevor says.

“What is of more concern is there are IT professionals who are not getting the work they should because they don’t have the skills that are required currently.”

She says possible solutions to ICT skills shortages include: “Relaxing the visa rules so that recruitment companies can sponsor contractors and on-hire them to clients; training IT contractors in new technologies; and, in the long term, better marketing of careers in IT to encourage more people to enrol in university courses”.

Article from The Australian, May 2011.

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