When IT spending improves, as inevitably it will, the pent-up demand for skills will incite a scramble for talent that will leave the unprepared organisation in the dust.
Australian CIOs who ignore skills development today risk continuing the roller-coaster ride of boom and bust that has plagued the IT&T industry over the past decade. Collective action now will pay massive dividends during the sector’s next upswing, the first signs of which are already emerging with a new class of skills already in short supply. In 1999 the information technology and telecommunications industry was faced with a major skills shortage. At that time the industry was riding high as business, government and community organisations invested in new technology to reduce transaction costs, provide better customer service and offer unparalleled access to information. Pivotal events such as Y2K and the introduction of the GST further spiked demand for IT&T skills.
The IT&T industry’s response was to form the IT Skills Hub. With funding support from the Commonwealth government, the organisation was charged with identifying emerging IT&T skill trends and addressing pressing skills shortages.
Since that time the industry has changed markedly. A downturn in technology spending has squeezed the employment market and left many wondering about the need to invest in Australia’s IT&T skills base. Yet this view ignores the fact that IT&T products and services drive virtually all of the nation’s industry sectors. The need for skilled IT&T workers will continue to grow over the longer term, despite the peaks and troughs of the business cycle.
Moreover, if Australia takes a longer-term view it can position itself to manage this business cycle and exploit the commercial opportunities presented by a more buoyant global market. Without this focus on the future, capital investment and jobs could all be lost to more competitively astute international neighbours that are currently investing heavily in a skilled workforce.
Unfortunately, we are going in the opposite direction. This year, for the first time, there has been a significant decline in the number of students applying for post-secondary IT courses. When this decline in applications is reflected in a decline in graduates in several years time, Australian industry will face a skills shortage, precisely when the anticipated industry upswing is under way.
A two pronged approach is therefore needed.
First, the industry must promote interest among students regarding long-term IT&T career prospects to address the current negative perceptions that are held by young people, teachers, careers teachers and parents. Second, the industry must develop skill strategies for the current IT&T work-force, including those people who have become casualties of the recent downturn. These people will be needed in the future.
IT industry leaders have a major role to play in both facets of this strategy and the IT Skills Hub provides a ready avenue for action.
The IT Skills Hub has an ongoing program of awareness-raising in schools and offers industry partners and government a partnership with established access to the youth market. The IT Skills Hub also addresses the current market through research programs that highlight emerging skills in demand, to help industry plan for the future.
Most recently the IT Skills Hub released its Market Monitor report that draws data from actual job advertisements over an eight-year period, rather than relying on subjective surveys which only show a snapshot in time. This intelligence points to emerging skills in demand such as wireless technologies, Web services, Linux, XML, security, storage and new development frameworks such as Microsoft .NET. Findings confirmed that finance was the top area for IT&T employment, while most recruitment advertisements were recorded in NSW.
A further industry requirement identified by the IT Skills Hub was the need for diversification. In particular, industry is now looking for people who understand how technology relates to the company’s bottom line.
The IT Skills Hub has responded by developing innovative leadership programs focused on IT/business alignment for both senior executives and middle-level managers. These programs are creating a select group of influential leaders and managers that can take the Australian industry to its next phase of development. The programs have received strong backing from industry, with many CIOs providing input or participating.
Given the apparent need for ongoing skills development, the unresolved question for many is: Where to from here?
Without doubt IT&T skills development remains crucial to the nation’s long-term economic prosperity. Part of the challenge facing the IT Skills Hub is keeping stakeholders focused on the need for skills development despite the recent downturn.
While it would be far easier to pretend the skills issue has been solved, the reality is that we, as a nation, must maintain a longer-term vision and start planning for the future.
As industry leaders, we all have a responsibility to manage skills supply not only through the current difficult times but also through the inevitable recovery. Collective action now will provide a pool of resources that will form an essential part of an organisation’s long-term business planing and positioning.
Brian Donovan is CEO of IT Skills Hub