After COVID: The AIIA’s proposal to grow Australia’s economy through technology and training

The plan focuses on building a national digital backbone and a digital Australia that is secure and resilient, building digital skills for the future, and reformimg taxes, incentives and government procurement.

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Looking at a post-COVID-19 Australia, the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) has put out a white paper that describes the role technology can play in the country’s growth and also how industry and governments can work together to prevent the national economy from hitting bottom.

The 50-page document focuses on building a national digital backbone and a digital Australia that is secure and resilient, building digital skills for the future as well as proposing reforms of taxes, incentives and government procurement.

Some of AIIA’s proposals are part of ongoing discussions that the industry, government and citizens are well aware of, so Computerworld Australia focuses here on key points that perhaps are not getting enough attention but are important for a more digital future.

Using automation and a digital backbone to support the economy

Embracing technology and automating routine manual jobs to increase productivity could prevent the resources and agricultural sectors, which are major contributors to the country’s per-capita GDP performance, from coming under pressure as a result of a possible deterioration in the global economy.

On top of investment in technologies that improve worker productivity, the AIIA also suggests facilitating continuous improvement and innovation, rethinking policies, regulations and business models to remove “unproductive practices”.

The AIIA recommends the Australian government begin a joint task force of private and public sectors to establish a digital backbone strategy and roadmap that can support business and citizen digital infrastructure needs to 2030 and beyond. Through a feasibility study, the task force could identify changes required to the current digital infrastructure and capabilities and then define an investment plan.

The foundation of the digital backbone would be through a focus on “combining international best practice capabilities with domestic entrepreneurs and service providers”, which the AIIA said would ensure that local capacity could still grow even when contracting multinational corporations. The AIIA recommends better contracting policies to help foreign businesses work effectively in consortia with domestic organisations.

Preparing Australian small and medium businesses for the future

Small and medium businesses make up the bulk of the Australian economy. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) revealed that, in the 2018-19 period, 69.1 per cent of employing businesses had between one and four employees.

It is no surprise however, that small and medium organisations were the least prepared for business continuity during the COVID-19 pandemic. The AIIA pointed out a common activity among these businesses: They are more likely to use free, often less secure or less capable technology.

The AIIA stated that the 2016 Australian Cyber Security strategy provided grants through the Cyber Security Small Business program but these grants were not fully used. As reported by InnovationAus, Labour industry spokesman Brendan O’Connor said he understood the “program was not fully subscribed, with many industry and cybersecurity experts citing the program as ineffective. However, given one in four Australian small businesses were victims of cyber crime in 2017, this issue is of increasing importance.”

The industry association made the point that during COVID-19 lockdown businesses had weeks to adapt to different approaches, but with cyber attacks taking place within hours there is a need to improve access to secure, compliant remote access connectivity and collaboration tools as well as offering support and education to manage compliance and risk.

The AIIA said that investment in these points would create employment opportunities. It also recommended a set target so that 25 per cent of Australian government spend on IT comes from Australian industry, including small and medium businesses, by 2030.

Tackling the skills and migration obstacles

One of the points the AIIA made on the future of the workforce is that, with countries recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic at a different pace, local organisations won’t be able to rely on skilled migration, which leads to the need to upskill both existing and new workers.

The AIIA said that the increase in unemployment due to the COVID-19 pandemic ccould be an opportunity for upskilling and recommended an update of the current JobKeeper payment scheme so a portion of the funding is allocated to training credits for employers to reskill their workforce.

When asked how that might happen, the AIIA replied: “The government has announced a JobMatcher program and we are waiting on details. We are suggesting that for a time (with high unemployment and an economy transitioning out of COVID) … we need incentives in place to ensure training is an attractive proposition over staying on JobKeeper and/or giving employers a training subsidy.”

Although the AIIA said Australia can use its advanced position in combating COVID-19, and can use opportunities for career advancement as draw cards for skilled migration, the AIIA also proposed the government take initiatives to attract skilled Australians living overseas back into the country—particularly skilled cyber security professionals. “The federal government should consider an incentives-based scheme to attract skilled workers back to Australia, potentially in the form of tax relief,” the AIIA said.

Establishing a passport for digital skills in a lifelong learning framework

The AIIA also noted that the concept of micro-credentials has emerged to fill skill gaps in the industry but there is not a single definition for the acquisition of skills which is accepted across education providers, employers, professional associations and government policy makers.

To address this, the AIIA recommended that Australia implement a nationally recognised lifelong learning framework with a skills passport to capture digital skills across voluntary education and training (VET), university and micro-credential certifications.

The AIIA said that professionals do not find the academic life attractive given the lower wages—compared to industry wages—and that the certification required to teach vocational courses takes too long to acquire. Therefore, the AIIA proposed shortening the mandatory Certificate IV in Training and Assessment course duration to six weeks from the current average of 11 months.

Tanveer Zia, associate head of the school of computing and mathematics at Charles Sturt University, who did the Certificate IV many years ago, told Computerworld Australia he had got that certificate as a TAFE requirement to teach and that it was very helpful to him. He said that industry professionals are very effective in delivering lectures, but to develop content and teaching material the certification is likely not enough.

Rather than simply looking at reducing the timeframe of the course, the issue should be looked at from other points of view, Zia said. For example, at Charles Sturt University some programs are delivered by industry professionals and academics on a 50-50 basis. He said that there could be great benefits if vocational institutions assigned a qualified teacher to one or two industry professionals to help develop the content that they would then delivered.

Creating more incentives for innovation beyond R&D

Tax incentives to Australian organisations investing in research and development (R&D) have been available since 1986 but industry investment has been declining for the past 10 years, according to the AIIA.

The AIIA suggested a non-R&D-based innovation incentive be created as, according to the 2020 Innovation and Science Australia report on Australian Business Investment in Innovation, non-R&D-based innovation by firms in Australia appears to equal or exceed R&D-based ones.

The AIIA also recommended that AusIndustry consult with at least one relevant industry expert before making a formal finding against a company applicant and the government introduce a higher level of R&D tax benefit for projects of strategic importance to Australia.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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