Short-term thinking led Australia into an IT skills shortage

Job advertisements looking for candidates with a decade's worth of experience is leading to a skills crisis of our own making.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

It's a cliche, but the only way to break into app development these days is to have over 10 years of experience developing for iOS.

While it's clearly an exaggeration, there is a grain of truth to it, and the ICT workforce study (PDF) released yesterday by the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency provides some pointers to the appearance of a skills shortage in the Australian IT industry.

Trying to determine whether we are suffering from a skills shortage is a little like trying to determine whether light is a wave or a particle, in that people see what they want to see.

Take the differing views of two bank CIOs from last year. Westpac CIO Clive Whincup told ZDNet that organisations are being forced offshore by the skills shortage, whereas CommBank CIO Michael Harte called such statements "nonsense", and called the whole idea of a "skills shortage" a myth.

But rather than dissecting these issues with the use of "feelings" and other forms of divination, let's turn to the ICT workforce study and assess some facts.

The study says that unemployment in IT is lower than the national average, with a peak in unemployment occurring in 2009, coinciding with the heights of the global financial crisis, and that demand for IT skills is projected to rise over the next five years.

This makes it appear that there is a shortage of people looking to enter the IT workforce, but everything is not as it seems.

"In 2011, 51 percent of all ICT graduates aged 20 to 29 years were not employed in ICT professional occupations," the report says.

If that sounds bad as an overall statistic, it gets worse for students engaged in computer science or software engineering degrees.

"Only 18 percent of students with a bachelor degree or higher qualification in information technology gain employment as software and applications programmers, which is the largest of the 18 primary ICT occupations."

What is occurring is that IT graduates are finding employment, but not fields directly relevant to their education.

"The percentage of information technology graduates in jobs shortly after their course completion, where their qualifications are not directly relevant, increased from 58.7 percent in 2009 to 70.2 percent in 2012.

"74.7 percent of computer science graduates and 79.5 percent of electronic and computer engineering graduates secure full-time employment upon completion of their courses, although not all of them may have secured jobs in ICT occupations.

"While this is not an indication that they are in unrewarding jobs, it does signal an outflow of skills at a time when the demand for ICT skills is on the rise."

If the report's projections are correct, and the demand for IT professionals is set to grow by 9.5 percent, or by 21,400 workers, by 2017, can we really be affording to lose 70 percent of our graduates?

The current mindset of business would suggest that, at least for the short term, we can. With the solution coming in the form of 457 visas.

"The number of primary subclass 457 visa applications granted in the computer professionals grouping in 2011 —12 was more than twice the number of higher education completions in the field of information technology for 2011."

In that year, the number of completions was over 12,000, with international students making up two thirds of the graduates.

For the 2011-12 financial year, 457 visa holders made up around 4.2 percent of the total number of IT professionals in the workforce, and 1.5 percent of IT managers. Numbers from the Australian Computer Society put 457 holders as making up 5.2 percent of software and application programmers, and 4 percent of IT business and systems analysts.

The recent changes to the law requiring a local advertisement of a position prior to looking for 457 workers is unlikely to stem the tide.

"Data from DEEWR's Survey of Employers Who Have Recently Advertised indicates about 10 percent of applicants in three ICT occupations — ICT business analyst, systems analyst, and analyst programmer — were suitable for the positions advertised, and for developer programmer and software engineer positions only 5 percent of applicants were suitable," says the report.

"One of the reasons for the mismatch between employer requirements and applicants is that the positions require between two and 10 years previous experience, which new entrants cannot meet."

And here, we have the core of the problem that leads to the "skills shortage".

There is clearly a multitude of fresh talent pouring out of tertiary education institutions, but few are willing to invest the time and resources necessary to fill the gap between fresh-faced recruit and able team member. Companies are looking for talent that can hit the ground running, and contribute immediately.

"Employers increasingly demand so-called 'T-shaped' professionals with both broad knowledge and deep expertise, including technical skills, domain knowledge, and soft skills, which include communication and business skills. Employer demand for experienced workers means that there are fewer entry-level positions available for new graduates."

Graduates looking for a start are getting smashed from two directions, as some existing workers are stepping down the career ladder to find work.

"For example, in Queensland, as a result of some government departments reducing contractor hours, many ICT technicians are having difficulty finding positions at their current skill levels, and are consequently taking on lower-skilled roles."

Add into that equation the high turnover and prevalence of contract labour, and it's easy to see why IT could be regarded as a hard industry to successfully break into.

To help ease the burden on graduates, the report recommends "a more strategic approach to work-integrated learning and the consideration of an apprenticeship/traineeship model for ICT skills". The report notes that graduates who complete an apprenticeship are 1.5 times more likely to find work.

Until that model takes off, though, businesses are left seeing what they want to see.

If you are disposed to wanting a department of mid to senior developers, then you'll believe that you are beset on all sides by a skills shortage. Whereas companies that are willing to take a chance on a set of junior programmers are likely to see a plethora of suitable candidates beating down their door.

The "we are not a nursery" mindset that permeates the industry is slowly eating the industry from the inside, hence the reliance on temporary 457 workers.

In this environment, a little bit of investment has the chance to go a long way.

This is why I am more tempted to side with the Harte viewpoint, and deny the existence of a skills shortage. In fact, if there is a shortage of anything, it is of companies that are willing to invest in workers who are not quite up to scratch compared to the often outrageous conditions listed in job advertisements.

On the positive side, for those people who are able to get a start in the IT field, the news is not all bad .

"Graduates who are successful in finding employment, however, find the experience rewarding and career enhancing," according to the report.

It's a shame that more people are not able to get the precious foot in the door to begin their career.

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