Business Council calls for coding to begin with toddlers

The president of the Business Council of Australia, Catherine Livingstone, has called for computational thinking and problem solving to be added to curricula immediately.

Children as young as four should be introduced to computational thinking, design thinking, and problem solving, Business Council of Australia (BCA) president and Telstra chair Catherine Livingstone said today at the National Press Club.

"They're absolutely capable of it, and that's when they should be learning those skills," she said.

Livingstone warned that Australia is falling behind its international competitors in digital literacy, and called for a 10-year plan to close the gap, which the BCA president said would be essential to solving structural youth unemployment.

"Universities are crying out, they can't get enough students entering the IT streams," Livingstone said.

"We'll never have enough students if they don't take the secondary courses; they won't take the secondary courses unless they take the primary courses; and they won't succeed at the primary courses unless we start right from the beginning."

The BCA chief said that study and work should not be regarded as separate times of one's life, and should be intertwined.

"We must move away from the notion that work is something we begin after a long period of study, to one where work is integrated with learning," she said.

"Given that the late teens and early 20s is a period of very high innovative thinking capacity, not to have those young people participating in the workplace in some way is a waste of intellectual capital and a loss of productive capacity."

Livingstone used the speech to call for a new social contract due to the "extraordinary" disruptive forces of mass connectivity.

"It is difficult to convey the level of anxiety and urgency we should have in the face of the disruptive forces I started today by describing," the Telstra chair said.

"The ageing of our population combined with the impact of hyper-connectivity will literally overwhelm us if we don't rapidly increase our rate of adaptation.

"I am not exaggerating when I make this point."

Earlier this year in Davos, world leaders were worried about the rate and impact of job displacement, she said.

"They are also afraid that the rate of change in technology now exceeds our capacity to adapt to it -- but adapt we must.

"If we embark on a 10-year transition now, we might just have policy frameworks fit for purpose by 2025. If we do not, we face certain loss of standard of living and social cohesion."

The long-time Telstra board member said 47 percent of all jobs in the United States are at risk of being automated, and 40 percent of its workforce is freelancing "through new business models like Airbnb, Airtasker, and Uber". The impact of the new business model would be felt in demand because freelancers are unable to commit to long-term purchases and debt, as their income is not secure.

"While we are debating the minimum wage and penalty rates, jobs are moving to Airtasker or being replaced by machines," Livingstone said. "We need to move urgently from a discussion about protecting the jobs of today to creating the jobs of the future.

"Precision welders and robotics mechanics will be more useful in the growing advanced manufacturing sector than yet more law graduates for whom there are no jobs."

Using the example of Google's recent change to its search algorithm to rank mobile-friendly sites higher, the BCA president said 66 percent of Australian sites were not ready for the switch, 51.5 percent of companies included in the ASX 200 were not ready, it would impact Australia's competitiveness, and no business model was immune from impact.

"My contention is that given the disruption of a hyper-connected world, many of our policy settings are simply not fit for purpose," Livingstone said.

"They have exceeded their design tolerance limits."

Livingstone's comments mirror those made by federal Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull in February, who said at a NICTA-hosted event in Sydney that the country's schools should introduce IT skills such as coding and computational thinking much earlier than they do now.

"We really should have every student acquiring some familiarity, if not expertise, to machine languages -- I mean, that is the new literacy: Reading, writing, arithmetic, and coding," he said at the time.