The Australian tech industry will only close the skills gap if it addresses diversity

Recent research reports including the annual ACS Australia’s Digital Pulse and a report released last week by the Foundation for Young Australians have pointed to a need for a broad range of skills in the modern workforce.

One of the main findings for both reports suggests that Australia should not just rely on university graduates and foreign workers to combat the predicted shortfall in digital skills.

The solution to the shortfall must be timely and it must look at diversity.

Developing the digital skills of both existing technology workers and the broader Australian workforce will be an important factor in ensuring that there is an adequate supply of ICT skills to support the growing digital economy, and this includes women and mature age workers, who are vastly underrepresented.

The ACS report, prepared by Deloitte Access Economics, found that women comprise only 28% of ICT workers in Australia, and mature age ICT workers represent just 11%.

There has been a lot of commentary around diversity in recent months, particularly concerning women and inequality, and the ICT sector is no different. Average earnings are significantly lower for women in the ICT workforce compared to men, with an average pay gap of around 20%.

Satisfying ICT skills demand from the current workforce requires a greater focus on diversity issues, in particular encouraging more women and more mature age workers in to ICT.

Interestingly, LinkedIn data included in the report highlights the increasing demand for ICT workers to also hold more generalist, “soft” skills in addition to their core technical skills. Data from last year shows that six out of the top 10 skills, and eight out of the top 20 skills, sought after in ICT roles are non-technical.

These are skills like project management, business development, relationship management and strategic planning.

This then highlights the importance of mature age workers and their contribution in Australia’s ICT workforce. In particular they are highly represented in a number of more senior and specialised roles. For example, 26% of ICT trainers and 21% of telecommunications technical specialists are aged 55 years or over. This suggests that the skills and experience of mature age workers can be valuable in more high-level or specialised ICT positions.

But technology-related age discrimination in the workforce is an issue impacting upon both ICT workers and the broader workforce, given the prevailing stereotype that mature age workers have difficulties learning the new digital skills that are now required across many jobs.

Targeting ICT skills development opportunities to mature age workers could assist in addressing these perceptions.

The ACS argues that there needs to be a fundamental and urgent change to the cultural mindset and attitudes towards mature age workers and women in the workforce. This requires genuine, committed, outcome-focused leadership.

Improving female representation amongst ICT workers would require encouraging girls and young women to study STEM subjects at primary, secondary and tertiary levels of education, depicting more positive female ICT role models in the media and adjusting business practices relating to recruiting, retaining, paying and promoting employees so that these do not directly or indirectly discriminate against female ICT workers.

It is essential to highlight the importance of ICT workforce development by prioritising programs that support ICT-related skills development. This could be targeted towards specific segments of the workforce that are particularly likely to benefit from training opportunities – such as to encourage the participation of underrepresented groups such as women and mature age workers, which both represent an important pool of resources that should be utilised to help meet the ICT skills needs in the economy.

While the National Innovation and Science Agenda has been a good start to the ICT skills discussion, existing government-funded training and education programs could be prioritised to support ICT-related training and learning opportunities that are shown to be beneficial in terms of filling skills gaps or facilitating digital growth and innovation within Australian businesses.

As the LinkedIn data and ACS report suggest, both soft and technical skills are important moving forward.

Not only is it imperative to utilise persons with these skills, it is essential for the ICT sector to engage in more diverse recruitment, taking advantage of the pre-existing skill base of women and mature age workers, and the overall potential of inclusion.

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