How Australia can turn the digital skills deficit into an opportunity

- April 14, 2022 4 MIN READ
Alex Coates
Weve heard a lot about the IT skills shortage, the Great Resignation’ and the impact the pandemic has had on the availability of labour across the economy.

Economics consulting firm AlphaBeta has estimated that 3.7 million Australian employees will need training in digital skills in the next year in order to cope with the changes in their jobs due to the pandemic.

Thats a daunting figure, 29% of the workforce, especially as we face an acute shortage of people with the skills and experience to drive digital transformation projects in everything from healthcare and financial services to manufacturing and the public sector.

But the AlphaBeta research, which was commissioned by cloud partner Amazon Web Services, also suggests theres plenty of potential to make progress in the short term.

A survey of over 1,000 Australian employees and 300 organisations ranging from small businesses to large enterprises, found both employers and their workers keen to embrace new digital skills, in areas such as cloud computing and cybersecurity.

While only 30% of employers surveyed signalled that they currently had a digital skills programme fully operational, 97% of them saw the need for digital upskilling, which they believe would improve employee productivity, fast-track digitisation goals, achieve cost efficiencies and help with employee retention.

On the flip side of the coin, 62% of workers felt they will require training in cloud-related skills by 2025 to progress in their careers. The appetite to upskill is there. So whats the problem? Whats holding us back?

Unfortunately, our skills development pathways are not flexible enough to help both technical workers who make up our IT workforce and non-technical workers, embrace the digital skills that are now essential to our economy.

We continue to lean too heavily on tertiary qualifications that can take months or years to complete at great expense to the student. Options for reskilling or shifting careers entirely are unclear to people, who lack the time to complete them anyway.

For years, we relied on computer science graduates and highly skilled migrants to gain the skilled people to power technology transformation.

But the world has changed. Border restrictions over the last two years have limited the supply of highly skilled and experienced workers.

More fundamentally, digital skills are now required to a greater degree across all types of employment, from owning a small business to working in marketing, retail or farming.

We rightly see ourselves as an innovative nation that has embraced digital technologies in the public and private sectors alike. But weve lagged behind other countries in developing our digital skills to fit the new reality.


The talent challenge

At Datacom, we employ 3,250 people in Australia and a further 3,470 across the Tasman. I wont shy away from the fact that accessing the right talent is currently our number one challenge and our biggest priority as a business.

As a company, we continue to take on hundreds of tertiary graduates each year across Australasia. But we have substantially broadened our approach to recruitment and training. We created the TalentX platform to help graduates, students and professionals meet like-minded people and discover opportunities to develop their careers in tech.

This year we will run Datacomp, which sees TalentX student participants collaborate alongside our Datacom squads at our annual innovation competition.

We are taking graduates from the AWS re/Start programme, which sees unemployed and underemployed go through a free, full-time, 12-week course in cloud computing skills. Last year we also brought on board new recruits from the Microsoft Traineeship Program.

Datacom also has a series of in-house initiatives to ensure we are helping our staff to build the skills that they – and the wider tech sector – need for the future.

Our Transform initiative allows staff to identify a new area they want to upskill in and then over a six-month period they are allocated time, mentoring and job shadowing opportunities to prepare them to flex into new roles.

By investing in initiatives like Transform we are giving our people the chance to grow and achieve in their own personal journey, while also future-proofing the success of our organisation by ensuring we can meet the changing needs of our customers.

Our Aspire and Strive programmes help every employee set their goals, pursue training opportunities for continuous development, offer professional qualification funding and give recognition for development undertaken.

Weve made a multi-million investment in our internal skills development programmes, including in Skillsofts Percipio platform, which is like Spotify for skills and training. When we recently surveyed our own staff we found that their top two priorities were having flexible work options and the opportunity to grow in their career.

A big part of tackling the skills shortage for us is about helping our people develop their skills and pursue new challenges and opportunities within Datacom. Thats essential to retaining talent in a market where skilled IT workers can command top dollar and pick and choose where they want to go. We need to nurture the talent we already have.

The AlphaBeta research is a wake-up call. But if every Australian employer mobilises to some degree to help bridge that digital skills gap, we now have a prime opportunity to build the workforce we need for the future. The pathways for employees to a higher level of digital skills need to be as clear as the appetite for change the research has highlighted.

There is no one thing that will solve this problem. Its not up to the tertiary education providers or the government to fix it. We must share this responsibility. As our world becomes more digitised, the future of our economy and our social well-being depends on us getting it right.