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A call to arms

A call to arms

The Australian skills problem is complex and requires an innovative multi-faceted solution

During the last quarter of the twentieth century, engaging anyone in Australia in conversation about ICT drew a predictable set of responses: ICT was seen as synonymous with the future -- a sunrise industry as opposed to our traditional sunset industries like coal, wool, resources, and steel.

Australians became early adopters of technology and stood alongside world leaders in penetration levels of faxes, mobile phones, PCs and, later, Internet access. Young people flocked to ICT careers.

Australia's systems for banking and electronic payments were, in many respects, world-leading. Australian governments joined the enthusiasm to utilise and develop technologies by vying for investments from the then global leaders to locate their regional headquarters, R&D, and production facilities here. Exports rose and $A1 billion was generated by software exports alone by 1995. While still dwarfed by imports, this performance was significant -- the wine industry took until 1999 to reach $A1 billion in exports.

We've come along way since then but we need to go a lot further. There is no doubt that computers are the technology of our time; they have become central to the operations of societies.

Technically trained people are now in demand worldwide, but employee skill needs are changing. High-level thinking is in demand, as complex systems perform non-thinking jobs. The Internet has marked the decline of rigid modes of communications and transportation. Companies must now operate in real time. Businesses must be flexible, responsive, quick, customer-focused, inventive, innovative, collaborative, and global.

The breadth, complexity, and influence of ICT are so rapid and so extensive that no-one can predict the details of the future of ICT. By far the biggest impediment to the growth of the Australian ICT industry is the supply of the right skills. It's an issue made more complex by he fact that the local customer set are short of the same skills we seek to expand our local development activities. Short-term solutions have been with us for a long time. What we have done to address the underlying problems has been far too little and too late. We've attempted some interesting things to forge new co-operation between vendors, customers, and educational institutions, but we need to do a lot more to pick up the pace.

And those who call for specific numerical goals in industry development need to get behind the industry and the institutions to set some more challenging targets in this vital field of skilled human resources. We've come along way, but we need to go a lot further and encourage more creative and beneficial relationships. We also need an international view, not an introspective and parochial one, if we are to build and maintain an internationally successful ICT industry.

Len Rust is publisher of The Rust Report.

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