Will a lack of tech talent derail Australia’s digital ambitions?

A perfect storm of pandemic-accelerated digital transformation, lofty Federal Government aspirations and reduced migration is making life difficult for APS recruiters.

As has been endlessly observed, a once-in-a-century pandemic has turbo-charged the digital transformation process across the developed world. As has been somewhat less remarked on, that pandemic has bought this nation’s skilled migration program to a near standstill. And, as has thus far gone largely unnoticed, the Federal Government has recently been ramping up its ambition “for Australia to be a world-leading digital economy and society by 2030”. 

End result?

A growing digital skills shortage. And the prospect of cyber specialists currently employed in the public sector being poached by desperate and deep-pocketed private-sector businesses.

Over the course of the pandemic, the Federal Government released its Digital Economy Strategy 2030Modern Manufacturing StrategyJobMaker Digital Business Plan and Cyber Enhanced Situational Awareness and Response (CESAR) package. 

The overarching aim of these initiatives is for Australia to bounce back rapidly from the economic disruption caused by COVID-19 in the short term and to join the ranks of digitally mature nations in the medium term. 

At the time of writing, the Federal Government has tasked the APS with the following:

  • Developing a digital identity system
  • Modernising the Business Registers program
  • Rolling out the Consumer Data Right (CDR) to the banking and energy sectors 
  • Accelerating the deployment of 5G 
  • Conducting blockchain pilots with the aim of reducing business compliance costs
  • Bedding down electronic invoicing for all Commonwealth government agencies by mid-2022     
  • Revising business laws and regulations to make them tech neutral
  • Lobbying to influence international standards around digital technology to promote Australia’s interests
  • Encouraging small businesses to develop their digital capabilities 
  • Addressing identified gaps in the nation’s critical supply chains
  • Transforming Australia’s long-beleaguered manufacturing sector by helping manufacturers “scale up, translate ideas into commercial successes and integrate into local and international value chains”. (Around 20 per cent of $1.5 billion that has been allocated to the Modern Manufacturing Strategy focuses on cyber security and digital activity.)
  • Generating new capabilities to disrupt malicious cyber activity to block emerging cyber threats to Australia
  • Enhancing the understanding of malicious cyber activity so that emerging cyber threats can be more rapidly identified and responded to

The pay-off?

If the JobMaker Digital Plan succeeds, it will lift Australia’s GDP by $3.9 billion and add 89,250 jobs over four years. If the Modern Manufacturing Strategy succeeds, it will raise GDP by $2.3 billion and add 41,000 jobs over five years. To quote the Minister for Defence, if CESAR succeeds, it will “put our nation on the front foot in combatting cyber threats and our investment in a cyber security workforce will help ensure we have the people we need to meet future cyber challenges”.

To quote the Minister for the Digital Economy, if the Digital Economy Strategy 2030 succeeds it will “boost productivity, increase access to secure infrastructure, support emerging industries and technologies, and ensure fit-for-purpose regulatory frameworks are in place” thereby guaranteeing the nation’s future prosperity. 

The problem?

A lack of workforce. The APS needs to hold on to its current cyber specialists and recruit around 500 new ones in an extremely tight labour market to complete the digital transformation mission it has been given.   

Australia’s tech talent shortage

Australia produces its own cyber specialists but nowhere near enough to meet demand. 

Both public sector and private sector employers have long relied on migration to make up for the shortfall. (Pre-pandemic, a sizeable proportion of the 100,000 skilled migrants arriving in Australia each year were cyber specialists.) 

Two years of closed borders have resulted in a severe skills shortage. One that has reportedly pushed up wages for software developers, cybersecurity specialists and data experts by around 30 per cent in the space of 12 months.   

What if skilled migration isn’t a magic bullet? 

Many influential stakeholders are now calling for Australia to massively ramp up migration, especially skilled migration. So, it’s possible Australian employers will be able to go back to simply importing the tech talent they require from developing nations such as China and India and, to a lesser extent, developed nations such as the UK, US and New Zealand.

But it can’t be assumed that in the digitally transformed ‘new normal’ that foreign labour will be as readily available as it has been in the past. 

Many other countries, not least China and India, now aspire to lead the pack of digitally mature nations. These countries may increase incentives for their local cyber specialists to stay at home. Also, the pandemic sped up the fourth industrial revolution all over the world, not just in Australia. That means we will be competing for expatriate cyber specialists with every other first-world nation, as well as plenty of developing nations.  

Can Australians learn to code?

Given the rise of remote working, particularly in the tech industry, Australian employers could attempt to address the skills gap by employing cyber specialists based overseas. However, in the context of a global skills shortage that’s sending salaries skyward, it’s not clear why a Chinese, Indian, Russian, Polish or Vietnamese cyber security specialist, let alone one based in the US, UK, Singapore, Japan or South Korea, would be incentivised to work for an Australian government agency.

As most tech industry figures have now concluded, the skills shortage is only likely to be resolved by training younger Australians and retraining older ones. 

This is now happening, though it’s likely to be some time before various public and private sector initiatives have much of an impact. 

In the last Budget, the Federal Government expanded the $1 billion JobTrainer Fund to, among other things, create another 10,000 digital skills training places

The Digital Skills Organisation, having recognised that “Australia is ranked 40th in the world for digital skills”, is doing its bit to address that parlous state of affairs. It’s doing this through projects such as Train 100 Data Analysts and the Cremorne Project (“a work-integrated learning-based traineeship that includes apprenticeships, “on the job” experience and class-based training using real-world scenarios). 

The Victorian Government has recently invested $64 million in a Digital Jobs program. This will see 5000 mid-career Victorians be paid a liveable wage while they undertake a 12-week internship and receive training in a particular digital skill at a Victorian TAFE or university. And a growing number of Australian businesses and government agencies are already in the process of digitally upskilling their workforces or at least planning on doing this in the near future.  

Like a general determined to fight the last war, the recently launched Tech Council of Australia is currently devoting most of its energy to lobbying the Federal Government to adopt something approaching an open-borders arrangement for digitally skilled migrants. But even it concedes that, “The ideal end state is one in which there is no local skills gap and tech-related roles can be filled from the local talent pool.”

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