Smart economics: Oz brain training

One of the technological brains which had drained from Australia during the last decade wanted to come home.

His mum rang to discuss the dilemma. Here was a smart, highly qualified young man who was prepared to take a significant cut in salary in order to return to Australia and resume an Australian lifestyle. But he could not find a way in. He didn't know where to start.

If he's still looking, things just got a whole lot tougher, because that skills shortage the industry has been complaining about for years is easing. It is not disappearing and globally there is estimated to still exist a shortfall of 1 million individuals with fashionable IT skills, but IT staff are currently a little easier to find and a little cheaper than they were a year ago.

Since August last year, the Olivier Recruitment Group's national Internet job index has been in free fall as demand for Internet skills abates, while the most recent TMP Job Index found that the job market in IT companies had fallen 19.5 per cent compared to the same time the year before.

This demand slump must be a short-lived phenomenon if Australia is to maintain its ambition to be a serious economic force this century.

Australia's government believes that the key to prosperity in the "21st century is remorseless innovation. Innovation, however, requires innovators, of which there is a limited supply and for which there is a global demand.

Senator Richard Alston, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, explained at a technology conference earlier this year that a key element in ensuring Australia's success in the 21st century would be a reversal of the brain drain.

"We want to reverse the brain drain, especially among those expatriates who are overseas for whatever reason and may want to come back, but they need a reason to come back soon," said the Minister. They certainly won't come for the money, as the prevailing exchange rates mean that a knowledge worker in the US commands salaries twice the level they might hope for in Australia.

They could, however, be lured by new challenges, and the opportunity to put Australia on the technology map of the world.

Dr Chris Nicol, the head of wireless research and development at Bell Labs Australia, is one brain already returned. After completing his PhD at the University of NSW in 1992, Nicol left Australia because "back then the opportunities for post doctoral research were few and I was pretty much forced to leave."

He went to work for Bell Labs, the legendary US research business, which employs 30,000 people in its research and development operation and has 1200 PhDs devoted to pure research. Bell Labs secures patents at a rate of 3.5 per day and has produced 11 Nobel Prize winners.

While overseas, he was an active participant in the international research scene and its conference circuit. On that circuit, he met plenty of Australians, but hardly any of them were working in their native country; most felt compelled to move overseas.

While Dr Nicol was working in the US for Bell Labs, the company began globalising its research efforts, opening research laboratories in the Netherlands, the UK, Germany and Australia. Its Sydney subsidiary represents an investment worth $25 million over five years.

Given the relative strength of the US dollar, Bell Labs' local investment is economically smart. It gets a lot more research for its $25 million here than it would overseas.

Likewise, Sun Microsystems, which is offering 30 Java scholarships to Australian high school and TAFE students for an outlay of $270,000, is getting something of a bargain.

Sun vice president Dr Bill Richardson acknowledges that the currency differential between Australia and the US makes this one of several countries where the price tag to reskill is lower than in the US. This, he claims, is something from which Australia ought to seek advantage.

At present, he believes that Australia does not produce sufficient IT skills to support a strong local IT economy, or to allow it to afford to become a "net exporter" of talent. Put simply, we can ill afford the brain drain. But neither can we afford the salaries to woo these people back to Australia.

Meanwhile, for Dr Richardson, Australia "is a great place to do my Christmas shopping."

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Beverley Head

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