Australia doesn’t have a skills shortage; we have a reskilling crisis

- June 16, 2014 4 MIN READ

According to the latest research by the government, there is no skills shortage in the innovation and programming industry. However, the government report received vocal criticism from the startup sector in February this year.

Matt Barrie, who’s never one to shy away from voicing his opinions on such things, was quoted by the Australian Financial Review, saying that the information produced by the report, is in complete contrast to the actual feedback that is coming out of the local technology sector.

“It’s just so hard to find qualified software engineers – at all levels,” Mr Barrie said.

“It’s an absolute national tragedy what is happening in technology.

“Basically, it’s more expensive to me on a cash basis to hire a University of Sydney graduate than a Stanford graduate.”

The report seemed to throw every role under the IT and Innovation sectors in one basket, a constant source of frustration for our ecosystem, in which the public sector seems to consistently fail to grasp the difference between “startups” and the unique “IT” roles, specific to them.

“What they’re talking about are technician level jobs, literally IT tech support roles. They’re not talking about software engineering or the real jobs that you need in a modern technology company,” he said.

“I would like someone to explain what the difference between ‘developer programmer’ and ‘software engineer’ is, because being an adjunct associate professor in the space and having hired hundreds of people in the industry I have no idea.

“The analyst roles are not hired by modern technology companies, they are anachronisms of the 60s and 70s.”

Whilst many agree with the sentiment Barrie is relaying, and he is definitely right about government interpretation of startup programmers vs traditional programmers and analysts, not all coders in the space believe the startup space is exactly lacking a pool of talent to choose from. Instead, an experienced group of coders within the community are suggesting that perhaps our startup space may prefer to throw the rod in a pond full of much younger fish.

Co-founder and CTO of yet-to-launch Perth startup Touchgr.am, Andy Dent has been a coder for over 30 years, and says the Australian ecosystem is missing out on what he is calling a second pool of potential coders for startups.

Dent says the core skills of programmers include the ability to spot patterns and small errors, and that once someone is skilled in a particular language, a good programmer should be able to be re-skilled in a significantly shorter of period of time. Because they also have a longer history in using various programs, these people will also have the ability to identify and rectify bugs within systems at a much faster pace.

This type of suggestion is all well and good, but who exactly would / should / could be responsible for facilitating a re-skilling process, after all the “fad” languages being used seem to change around every five or six years.

In which case, a robust, systemised action plan would need to be put in place not only to see out Baby Boomers and late Gen X programmers ’til retirement, but also to ensure that Generation Y who are growing up in the era where the most popular languages are Java, C Language, C++, C#, PHP, Python, Ruby, Javascript and SQL, are able to adapt their skill sets.

Eventually these languages will all be replaced with others, the new SWIFT language is an example of next generation coding for the programmers we currently precede.

Dent suggests that the Australian Computer Society (ACS) is an obvious choice to facilitate such a re-skilling programme. Whilst they certainly have the foundations and correct structures to deliver these types of courses, I feel there is currently a slight disconnect between ACS and the Australian startup ecosystem. Not a complete one, but there is certainly room for a stronger, more involved relationship between the two.

Of course other organisations such as Polycademy and General Assembly also represent good options to run these courses through.

The government should, instead of sweeping the startup sector aside (and they do, because our voice is not loud enough yet), be helping to drive a re-skilling culture within technology and innovation. After all, they’re expecting everyone to work until they are 70 years old, and not doing so will see the demise for many people that currently have secure jobs using languages that are currently relevant.

There is also large export potential in a well-structured program; the problem is a universal one after all.

Currently Australia graduates around 12,000 computer engineering students a year; and a large chunk of those are actually international students and do return to their own countries. The vast majority are in debt and need a stable job with a stable company to start off their careers – working at a brand new startup is not an option for them.

This second pool of talent are at a stage in their life where they have less to pay on their mortgages, more time on their hands and are financially secure, plus they have experience on their side.

Folks, we have a re-skilling crisis on our hands, and it probably won’t affect us too much today or even tomorrow, maybe not even in a year, but if we don’t do something to put in place a culture of constant re-education into the technology and innovation sector, we will be missing out on an entire generation of available resources.

I don’t think the government can see it yet, but this is really important stuff. Screw talking about skills shortages, we have a reskilling crisis on our hands.