Australian IT skills shortage here to stay

ICT course enrolments are down 30 percent, the nation’s networking sector is short 6000 workers, and things may worsen before getting any better

The current shortage of skilled IT workers in Australia is at an all-time low, and is a crisis the industry and the government must tackle collectively, and quickly, according to industry experts.

"The IT skills shortage is real and here to stay," said Phillip Tusing, marketing manager for international IT recruitment group Greythorn, and author of the Greythorn Salary Index.

Tusing said that there is a range of issues contributing to the IT talent shortage.

The strong economy and associated low unemployment rate; the global competition for talent; increasing dependence on technology to run business; and increased spending on technology are all issues, he said.

"The image of the IT profession as a career choice and an ageing population will also further contribute to the skills shortage. It will get worse if major steps are not taken."

Tusing's concerns are echoed by Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) CEO Sheryle Moon, who explained that wage payers in Australia must compete with the US, Europe, and the United Kingdom - all of whom offer IT professionals a higher wage compared to their Australian counterparts.

This also makes it harder to attract skilled foreign IT professionals, with both Moon and Tusing agreeing that the recent changes to the 457 Visa scheme may worsen the situation.

"In a time when we are competing for the best IT talent with other countries, making it more difficult for IT professionals to come and work in Australia is counterproductive," Tusing said.

To give an example of the increasing skills shortage, Moon said that in November last year there were 2.4 suitable people in the ACT for each IT vacancy. This is now down to almost 1:1.

"The falling rates of ICT enrollments in universities and TAFE are a further concern. These are down by 30 percent on enrollments at the beginning of this century," she said.

One way the industry is combating dwindling enrollments in IT related courses is by attempting to change the stereotypical perception people have towards IT professionals as nerdy males.

"I've been in the industry 25 years and consider it the most rewarding available. The range of opportunities is often overlooked by young Australians who of course have many more options than previous generations when it comes to choices around work," Moon said.

"AIIA has as one of its three strategies to change community attitudes of the ICT industry. This means influencing parents and teachers (who influence young people around career choices) as well as the young people themselves."

Tusing believes this change of attitudes is already occurring.

"I personally believe that the nerdy stereotype is diminishing. Technology permeates our everyday lives so that the average person today is much more aware of technology and how it works. There is a lot more understanding of IT professionals and what they do. At the same time, representation of females in the IT workforce is still too low," he said.

The Australian Computer Society (ACS) is also attempting to attract a broader range of people into the industry, one scholarship program launched by the ACS in May is aimed at attracting arts graduates into IT positions.

But despite this, the ACS Foundation struggled to fill its scholarship positions this year.

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Andrew Hendry

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