ICT skills shortage still a myth

commentary The Information Technology Contract and Recruitment Association (ITCRA) should be applauded for going above and beyond the call of duty in a recent meeting with Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone.ITCRA officials took it upon themselves to argue -- on behalf of all foreign professionals seeking entry into Australia -- for a more flexible skills migration programme.

commentary The Information Technology Contract and Recruitment Association (ITCRA) should be applauded for going above and beyond the call of duty in a recent meeting with Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone.

ITCRA officials took it upon themselves to argue -- on behalf of all foreign professionals seeking entry into Australia -- for a more flexible skills migration programme. At the discussion with other business organisations, the association tabled a whole raft of measures aimed at improving the system.

The organisation proposed a 10 percent increase in the number of foreigners permitted to practise their trade during the 2005 to 2006 period. This would bring the number of migrants to approximately 90,000 a year.

In a statement, ITCRA correctly identified the areas of shortage the nation is facing. They include nursing, medical science, accounting, finance, teaching and engineering. Failure to act would be detrimental and the economy will surely suffer the "largest skills shortage ever" over the next four years, the minister was told.

But the addition of information technology and communications (ICT) to the list was hard to digest. To its credit, ITCRA tried to justify its case to the minister but solid evidence to back up its argument was found wanting.

In fact, the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations has declared there is "no national shortage" in ICT skills. This conclusion was reached based on interviews conducted in May 2004 with 122 employers and 78 recruitment agencies nationwide.

Certain states experienced recruitment difficulties but no actual insufficiency in skills. New South Wales had difficulty in specialisations such as .NET technologies, Lotus Notes, Progress Software, SAP, PeopleSoft, Siebel, Linux and CISSP (certified information systems security professional).

ITCRA also pointed to Australia's lack of innovation in the software space to further its cause. Since very little is invented here, most ICT skills were obtained overseas first. The country, ITCRA argued, required "highly-trained skilled foreign workers to teach our ICT graduates on the major projects through skills transfer." I disagree.

Universities across the country have lamented the decline in the number of ICT undergraduates and that comes as no surprise. In 2000, around 12 percent of computer science graduates had difficulty finding full-time employment. That figure now stands at 30 percent, according to the Graduate Careers Council of Australia. Five years ago, the median starting salary for technology graduates was $37,000. Today, it has increased by a mere $1,000.

Dentistry, on the other hand, is one of the best performing professions both in terms of full-time employment and remuneration. Last year, a fresh graduate could earn an average of $60,000, an increase of $10,000 since the new millennium.

The nature of the problem for ICT is one of supply and demand. It has no connection with the quality of teaching at universities (although some tertiary institutions could use an overhaul of their computer science curriculum), and nothing to do with any skill shortages. If a continuous stream of job opportunities exist, does corporate Australia prefer to outsource overseas instead of hiring locals?

A dearth in .NET expertise, for instance, does not automatically warrant a drastic increase in the number of overseas software developers. The government is well-equipped in dealing with shortfalls in specialisations -- the introduction of the Skilled Independent Regional visa last July to fill skill shortages in regional areas.

To ensure a constant supply of highly skilled technology professionals, we have to first go back to the basics, fix the many problems in our own backyard and answer, in all honesty, the fundamental question of why ICT is not an attractive enough career.

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