JobWatch: fixing the ICT shortfall

Australia: not enough skilled workers, or not enough workers with the right skills?

Recruiters have been saying for some time that despite economic uncertainty, there's still a shortfall of suitably qualified people to fill ICT jobs. Time, then, to return to Australia's historic solution to labour shortages: fly them in.

Applications for 457 visas (the long-stay business visa that originally brought me to this country) are up by one third. There were 39,390 applications in the seven months to January 2012, up from 29,040 for the same period one year earlier.

As you might imagine, the biggest jump has been to meet the insatiable thirst of the construction and mining industries. There's also the continued shortage of nurses in an ageing Australia. Alongside these skill shortages, information media and telecommunications continues to be an in-demand category that requires us to look offshore.

(Credit: Phil Dobbie/ZDNet Australia)

Peter Noblet, from recruitment firm Hays, is not so sure that migration is entirely the answer. He says, "While it is widely recognised that migration is vital to ensuring economic growth and overcoming skills shortages, it is also a topic that generates heated discussion."

The current wave of redundancies is surely helping to fuel that debate. Why go overseas when major recruiters like Vodafone and Optus are laying off staff? The answer is likely that there's a structural shift in the types of roles demanded. Overall, demand is still strong for the sector, but people have the wrong skill sets — we need fewer hardware-maintenance people and more software developers, for example.

If we're not going to ship in the expertise, then we need to build the skill sets locally. Too bad, then, that our education system seems to be heading in the opposite direction. The annual Australian ICT Statistical Compendium, released late last month by the Australian Computer Society (ACS), highlights concerns that Australia's higher ICT education enrolments have halved in the last decade ago, and are continuing to decline.

ACS chief executive Alan Patterson says, "Given the importance of the digital economy to Australia's economic prosperity ... we hope addressing falls in ICT enrolments will be a key focus of 2012 government agendas."

In the meantime, we'll continue to ship in the expertise. There are huge benefits, of course, to employing someone who has broader experience gained elsewhere, but, with an average salary of just $85,000 on offer, it looks like many employers are simply taking middle-ranking workers who will accept less pay for life in the Aussie sunshine. If we're not bringing in highly qualified experts, there's a strong argument that these roles could be filled locally with a little training and an employer focus on in-house development.