ICT skills foundering on poor data and disinterest

Lingering doubts about information and communications technology (ICT) careers, inadequate ICT teaching, an ineffective industry reporting structure and poor collaboration between public and private sectors have all been blamed for the poor state of Australia's ICT skills tracking in a report released yesterday.

Lingering doubts about information and communications technology (ICT) careers, inadequate ICT teaching, an ineffective industry reporting structure and poor collaboration between public and private sectors have all been blamed for the poor state of Australia's ICT skills tracking in a report released yesterday.

The report, delivered to Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Helen Coonan by the ICT Skills Foresighting Working Group (SFWG), was quick to highlight the rapid growth of the ICT industry over the past two decades but found little to admire in the way the industry was being developed.

Despite the "vast amount of data" available about ICT skills across the industry, the group found that the data wasn't being shared or utilised in ways that would more effectively support the country's ICT industry. This criticism was levelled both at government organisations and the private sector, hindering the ability of labour market specialists to meaningfully assess the ICT skills market's current position and predict future demand.

The only shining light noted by the group was an effort by the IT Contract and Recruitment Association (ITCRA) which, in conjunction with Multimedia Victoria, has been funnelling data from 32 recruitment members into a database to track IT placements over time.

Coonan's response was to announce the formation of a National ICT Skills Tracking and Monitoring System that will build on the ITCRA model but expand the scope nationwide. To improve analysis, this data will be aligned with standard ANZSCO occupation classifications, and published regularly for all states and territories.

A related effort, the Skills Australia portal being established by the Department of Education, Science and Training and Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, will also track areas of skill shortage and future opportunity within the 356,600-strong ICT industry.

If lack of information about ICT positions is one problem, lack of interest emerged as another ongoing theme. "There is an urgent need to address the negative perception of ICT careers in the community," Coonan conceded, "as it is turning many young people away from considering a career in this dynamic sector. Building and maintaining a sustainable and world-class ICT workforce and ICT skills base is necessary to meet the current and future needs of the economy".

SFWG's primary recommendation was the formation of an industry leadership group whose mission is to improve information about ICT careers and foster participation amongst students. The group will have its work cut out for it: a recent Victorian government study, the report notes, found that 72 percent of 17 to 19 year olds didn't know much about the ICT courses offered at university; only 10 percent of respondents showed "strong interest" in an ICT career; six percent planned to do an ICT course at university; and 59 percent said the greatest disincentive to working in ICT was being stuck in front of a computer all day.

Such "outmoded" perceptions were noted as a major problem by the report, which also highlighted the Victorian survey's finding that school visits, work placements, and ICT company-sponsored competitions were all judged by students to be effective in spreading the word. The SFWG recommended funding of a National ICT Awareness Campaign that would dovetail into related efforts such as the new Career Advice Australia Web site.

Even as the SFWG and minister were in agreement that Australia's ICT industry needs better information about its future opportunities, the report didn't mince words in its assessment of the country's overall ICT labour force strategy.

"The combined impacts of the ageing workforce, changing generational patterns of work and the apparent failure of many employers to upgrade workplace skills," the group wrote, "could mean that Australia risks being unable to sustain key ICT-based economic capabilities, operations and services in the future".

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