IT skills shortage solution in industry's hands?

Changing perceptions and more industry involvement in collaboration with universities are paramount, says Westpac chief information officer, Clive Whincup

Westpac chief information officer, Clive Whincup, has called on the IT industry to make a concerted effort to change perceptions about IT careers, as well as work more closely with educational institutions, to help address the looming IT skills gap in Australia.

Speaking at a recent CSC-sponsored event in Sydney on Australia's skills shortage, Whincup said he had discussed the issue of declining numbers of students enrolling in IT-related university courses directly with the Australian Computer Society, which has itself been actively campaigning for action on the skills shortage.

“According to official figures, the number of university entrants enrolling in technology-related education nationally has halved over the past 10 years,” Whincup told attendees at the event.

“It strikes me as paradoxical that in an age where we speak increasingly of the digitised economy and the ubiquity of technology that fewer and fewer young Australians are attracted to pursue careers in the industry.”

Whincup pointed out the negative forecasts that surround the future of IT careers, and the need to change young people’s perceptions of the industry.

“I think too many people are making gloomy predictions about the profession itself and the future employment opportunities that it offers,” he said.

“I do think that we need to change perceptions in our younger generation and their parents who may have formed a view that by offshoring some technical activities we’re implicitly saying all our future needs can be met with that challenge.”

The CIO conceded that Australia would never be totally self-sufficient when it comes to technology skills, but said Australia stood on the precipice of an even greater chasm if it did not act now.

“We have an opportunity before us to change the views of Australians so that our technology workforce reaches a sustainable level of growth within a five to 10-year time frame to avoid the phenomenon of a gradually ageing workforce,” he said.

In line with Australia's push to become less dependent on primary industries in favour of a knowledge-based economy, Whincup said a focus on skills was also required to move up the technology value food-chain.

“The fact is we need increasing numbers of Australian-based technologists who will focus more on the higher end of technology production and change, and be far more involved in the production of intellectual property than in the less highly skilled functions,” he said.

“I’d like to encourage all of our suppliers in helping us to think through how we can jointly provide ways for younger people to develop their core IT skills in the first five years of their careers.”

In light of the need for high-end abilities, the industry’s input into collaboration with universities and education institutions in preparing young people in pursuing an IT career is key in building up the skills needed in the industry, Whincup said.

“I do think that collaboration between organisations is a better way of achieving great cohesion and a more unified front and a better flow of younger people coming into the industry from schools and universities," he said.

“I think we have to get over our competitive instincts and we have to look at this as more of a national issue and an industry issue than a competitive issue. It’s more the industry, I think, that needs to push on the collaboration side.”

Whincup is doing exactly that by having recently talked to a group of undergraduates and high school students at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) about IT careers. He encourages others from the industry to also get involved in helping young people, especially women, realise the opportunities of an IT career.

“At the end of the day, if a grey-suit wearing, middle aged technology veteran, such as myself, can get an audience of the average age of 18 fired up about careers in technology first thing on a Monday morning, [then] I have to conclude that it shouldn’t be too hard for us to grow the technology profession in Australia," he said.

“One thing is clear: Australia needs a vibrant and highly productive domestic technology industry. For that to exist, we need to be encouraging the brightest and the best of our younger generation, particularly women, to embrace and master the technologies which will drive the digital economy — whatever those technologies turn out to be.”

Follow Rebecca Merrett on Twitter: @Rebecca_Merrett

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