Skill Bill (and Jill)

Skill Bill (and Jill)

IT years are like dog years, according to Philip Argy, president of the Australian Computer Society (ACS). IT is so volatile, so fast-paced that even short periods of real time feel like eternities to people working in the field

Depending on the view, the skills cup may be half full or half empty, but it never runneth over.

Reader ROI:

In the 100th issue, I introduced what will be our ongoing series where CIO writers revisit and then update seminal events, issues and technologies that this magazine has covered over its 100-issue journey.

A good idea except for one thing: This is the 101st issue.


It was time to come up with a new tagline, so welcome to "CIO Retrospectives - Seminal Issues & Technologies". (Didn't have to look far for that one, did I?)

If you need a bit of a reminder regarding the stories here's our premise. The writers are to kick off with "What were we thinking" - that is, why we all believed the selected story was important and the pervasive mind-set at the time among users, observers and (occasionally) vendors. Then, in some instances at least, the writer look backs and casts a jaded eye - that is, "What were we thinking?" - over the topic.

This month CIO writers take a walk down memory lane and cast an eye over the disruptive technology of wireless and that ever-present thorn in IT executives' sides, the skills issue.

Once again I'm happy to entertain your suggestions for other "seminal" technologies or issues we should cover.


IT years are like dog years, according to Philip Argy, president of the Australian Computer Society (ACS). IT is so volatile, so fast-paced that even short periods of real time feel like eternities to people working in the field.

If he is right it may explain why the IT skills crisis now seems so distant. Yet it was only 1999 when the IT industry was issuing a call to arms for the government to do everything it could to encourage students to enrol in IT courses or entice skilled overseas IT workers to apply for work visas. Another 30,000 IT workers were needed, and fast.

The sceptics at the time doubted the gap was so big, while the cynics maintain even today that the vendor community hyped the shortage in order to attract more workers to the field to keep IT salaries in check and bump up bottom lines. In any case the skills shortage stalled when the market slumped post-Y2K and tech wreck. "Unemployed programmer" was no longer an oxymoron. Demand for IT courses at universities collapsed. Salaries stalled. That era lasted about five years.

There are indications, though, that a new epoch in IT skills is dawning. IT salaries are on the increase again, rising 5.2 percent in the year to March, according to the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA), which is forecasting a further 4 percent increase this year.

While it maintains that there are still pockets of skills shortages, the AIIA believes that at present Australian ICT skills supply and demand are "in balance". That assertion is reinforced by our own State of the CIO 2006 survey of 275 IT leaders in Australia, which found 59 percent are not planning to change their headcount, 37 percent are planning an increase, and just 4 percent are going to cut their numbers. Although lack of key staff or skills sets is acknowledged as one of the hurdles that CIOs still have to clear in order to be effective, the skills crisis has abated.

The skills issue, however, remains a perennial concern.

Certainly over the past five or six years the demand for technical skills has "eased up immeasurably", according to St.George Bank CIO John Loebenstein, in part he believes due to a more standardized approach combined with access to technical skills in China and India. "Where it is always hard to come by the right skills and today is even more acute, is to find people who understand the business and are able to apply business acumen. Of these people the supply is diminishing." Loebenstein says.

He also despairs of the calibre of young adults emerging from high schools. "It is appalling how today the output from schools and to some extent university are people who cannot create a standard written report. Their communications skills are appalling. They can only SMS. "Now, I can see that they are very clever, but their ability to communicate is not good," says Loebenstein, who believes that a strong suit in communications is essential for successful IT people bridging technology and business.

Ian Birks is chief executive of Ideas International and a board member of the AIIA's ICT Workforce Program, which aims to foster policy that will support the right ICT skills mix. Sometimes that means developing an IT graduate with business savvy, sometimes a business graduate with IT nous.

Over the past three years Birks says that the numbers of people identified as IT workers in government statistics has fallen significantly - from 203,000 in 2003, to 195,000 in 2004, and 187,000 last year. Despite that fall he says that ICT unemployment at 2.9 percent of the ICT workforce is slightly lower than the 3.2 percent figure across all occupations.

"As always with statistics there's more to it than that," Birks says, adding that part of the problem is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to define an ICT worker. "In fact on the demand side there are quite a lot of vacancies but they are for very specific skills and the demand can be unpredictable."

Often those gaps are plugged by targeted migration, and of the 50,000 or so skilled migrants that come to Australia each year more than a quarter are ICT workers, Birks says. He doubts that the need for skilled overseas workers will shrink any time soon. "There is a bit of a crisis in terms of university offers and enrolments," Birks says. "In NSW we are advised that offers to ICT students fell from 3700 in 2001 to 1900 in 2006. Similarly the entrance UAI for [IT courses at] the University of Technology in Sydney has dropped from 87 to 80 over the same period. This is a fairly serious problem - you can't go on dropping the entrance bar," Birks says. At the same time women are shunning the sector, with only about one in four current ICT workers being female, and even that proportion is dropping.

The core problem, Birks says, is that "young people are no longer seeing ICT as an exciting place to work; they are more interested in accounting, professional services or hospitality". In part Birks blames parents who are not encouraging their children to consider IT as a career.

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