How Australians and enterprises can address the digital skills gap

Employers and employees alike need to put themselves ahead of this problem and not be dependent only on future graduates but also invest in skills and training now so they can become the solution tomorrow.

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Local enterprises and IT professionals have been haunted by the fear of a growing skills gap. This gap is not exclusive to IT professionals: With jobs being automated, most workers will have to consider their existing or lack of digital skills and look at how their jobs might change so they can chase the necessary skills to adapt.

Where the gaps are amongst IT professionals in Australia

A recent study by RMIT Online and Deloitte surveyed 1,078 Australians and concluded the biggest skills gap is in data analysis. Of those who need data analysis skills for their work, 30% said that their skills are not at the level required, or are outdated, compared to their employer’s requirements, the report said. Other areas in high demand are application development and cybersecurity skills.

In January 2021, the top five most advertised roles at online recruiter Seek were developer/programmer, business/systems analyst, software engineer, help desk and IT support staff, and programme and project manager. Recruiter Hays lists the following as the IT skills in greatest demand in Australia: cloud engineers; security awareness consultants; full-stack developers with React, microservices, and cloud (AWS or Azure) experience; cybersecurity; data analysts and data scientists; software developers; and change managers.

RMIT Online CEO Helen Souness tells Computerworld Australia that during the COVID-19 pandemic, jobs with programming skills, technology design, and data analysis were amongst the fastest growing.

Souness notes there whilst was an uptick in skills development across enterprise areas during the pandemic, this uptick did not apply to technical skills improvement.

Jordan Griffiths, operations lead at Accenture A/NZ, says that employees should build an understanding of data analytics, automation tools and how to apply those to their jobs, and machine learning to create a more agile and operationally efficient workforce. He tells Computerworld Australia that leaders also need to be familiar with these ways of working to coach employees.

“With Australia unable to rely upon outsourcing work or skilled migration through the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever that Australia create and foster a highly skilled domestic ICT workforce,” Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) CEO Ron Gauci tells Computerworld Australia.

The AIIA published a white paper in June 2020 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 ACS Digital Pulse report of 2020 report, conducted by Deloitte and the Australian Computer Society, found that by 2025 there will be 156,000 more technology workers in the Australian workforce than there were in 2019. This exceeds the growth forecast rate of 1.8% of all jobs in Australia.

But that growth in technology workers is not enough for Australia to become a digital leader, the ACS report said. Australia would require technology workers to grow by more than double the current rate forecast to reach the United Kingdom’s technology workforce portion of 9% of total employed people. This would require an additional 388,000 technology workers, including the currently projected 156,000 workers, for the country to become the global digital leader.

But during the pandemic, the demand for such workers has declined. Seek’s latest report shows a 20% decline in ICT job ads in January 2021 compared to January 2020.

Digital skills will be required across most jobs

The concern over skills and staffing spreads further outside the technology area, with the fear of automation eradicating jobs altogether looming over the Australian workforce. Studies indicate that automation has and will continue to change most, if not all, existing jobs today.

Aaron McEwan, a Gartner vice president for HR research and advisory, tells Computerworld Australia that automation will affect almost every industry and will change every job. He says that finding machine learning experts, cybersecurity analysts, and artificial intelligence engineers is a challenge but where even greater demand will be is digital dexterity — people able to manipulate or use emerging technologies to drive impact and outcomes — and social creative skills, which he explained as “being able to use and manipulate emerging technology in a way that allows you to utilise and to solve novel complex problems”.

A baseline understanding of technology will be critical across nearly every sector, according to RMIT Online’s Souness. “While not every worker will require the technical know-how to code, develop AI solutions, embed blockchain practices, etc., leaders will need to be trained to be tech-forward in their thinking, with an underlying foundational knowledge of the capabilities that are being embedded in their sector. Technology is — and will continue to — transforming business sectors and our everyday lives, but Australia’s future economic opportunities are fundamentally underpinned by having a workforce with the right skills to meet it,” she says.

Surviving another automation wave

Automation is not an unknown phenomenon. It has happened throughout history when workplaces retired the typewriters to start adopting computers, when door-to-door sales practices moved to be done via phone and later via email marketing and online ads, or when businesses started storing data in the cloud. Automation does change jobs and sometimes eliminate some, but it also creates new opportunities and can be used to fill gaps.

Tim Sheedy, principal advisor at research firm Ecosystm 360, notes a bigger adoption of automation during the coronavirus pandemic in Australia. Organisations that used to opt for a new hire to fill a gap realised that some of the gaps within the business could be partly solved through automation.

The challenge is to be prepared for this change. McEwan says that the capabilities required for certain jobs will change and with it, many will adjust and learn new skills to stay ahead of that curve.

He says that, as every industry undergoes disruption, the best thing to do is to keep a close eye on the industry you are in to understand what the challenges may be that automation will not be able to solve and then to train and learn those to remain relevant. He adds that the focus should be on understanding the problem better. “If we're open-minded about what those capabilities look like, where you can build those capabilities, how you can access them in the market, organizations might be able to respond in a more effective way.”

McEwan also points out to how quickly workforces were able to respond during COVID-19 and able to learn new digital capabilities. “That should be a lesson that we carry with us.”

Hays regional director Robert Beckley tells workers to look at the skills that are relevant for their role or organisation. Look at emerging trends, too, as they will give an indication of the skills that will soon be valued by employers. He also says that upskilling does not need to involve a formal course and that employees can ask to work on a stretch project, follow industry leaders on social media, and join an industry or professional association.

The challenges in reskilling and upskilling

Many organisations see experienced employees leave after being trained, going to higher paying jobs. This has created a disincentive for employee training at some businesses, but Sheedy has seen a shift in that mindset and finds that employers now understand this some staff may leave after being trained but also realise that being an organisation that offers training opportunities make them more attractive employers.

But there is another mindset that needs to be changed: Employers offering training must remember that the employees need time to study. Just as the training opportunities should be there, so should the time should be provided to do the training.

In 2018, the 21st PwC CEO study found that 54% of Australian CEOs recognised their ongoing reskilling responsibility and agreed that they were responsible for retraining employees who’s tasks were automated.

But in its 2020 followup study, PwC found mixed results for Australian companies in their reskilling efforts: More Australian CEOs say they are making progress on upskilling programmes than their peers globally; for example, 38% say they are establishing an upskilling programme, versus 31% of CEOs globally. But the Australian efforts are much less successful in acievig grater innovation and digital ransformation, those sae CEOs say: Only 15% of Australian CEOs say those efforts have been very effective, versus 31% globally.

Australian workers are less likely to upskill through their employer than workers in other countries, PwC found. In fact, only the UK has a lower percentage than Australia’s 23%.

Still, the efforts continue. The existing and predicted skills gaps have resulted in partnerships between education providers and technology vendors to offer short courses and microcredentials. The COVID-19 pandemic has led large IT vendors to provide free basic skilling and upskilling online courses. There are also quite a few new IT vendor-education institution partnerships with training opportunities and new degrees. And large organisations, such as Kmart, Woolworths, and Optus, have created internal programs to train its existing staff in several digital skills.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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