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Investing in IT Skills Will Keep Our Talent at Home

Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Treasurer, Ed Husic MP says we train fewer people with IT ready skills today than ten years ago and we need to start investing in IT skills. Read the piece in full below.

Hey, Silicon Valley — we want our talent back. All of the 22,000 Australians reportedly helping drive and support innovation in that part of the US.

That’s the figure an Australian living and working in San Francisco mentioned to me during my recent tour through the West Coast of the US.

But it’s not just Silicon Valley that is snapping up our skills. Innovation hot spots are opening up across North America and demand for talent is ramping up.

For the record: this piece isn’t a serious demand for the forcible repatriation of skilled Australians. But the figure forces you to think — why has so much talent left our shores?

In part, it’s immediately explainable and understandable: Silicon Valley is a magnet for digital aspirants; people want to be in that environment to learn and seize opportunity.

Obviously, it’s a terrific reflection on the demand for Australian skill. US investors and entrepreneurs warmly remarked about what they were seeing in Aussie start-ups, about their determination to scale up at a global level.

What are we doing to build, value and retain talent?

For some time I’ve been pointing out we are not training enough Australians to meet the needs our own tech sector. 

The figures are damning: we train fewer people with IT ready skills today than ten years ago. IT enrolments have dropped about 55 per cent in that time.

Those that we do train get snared by our overseas rivals — which then starves our ecosystem.

It’s no surprise then that IT skills are among the highest sought after by companies applying for 457 visas.

It was put to me by our US friends that government doesn’t need to slovenly throw money at the tech sector to help it perform. But it can help in two key areas: investing in education and removing regulatory roadblocks. 

Clearly, we do need to get governments to concentrate their minds and resources on our national IT skills deficit.

From ensuring our national curriculum supports the development of these skills (at the moment, the Abbott government is tragically not supporting this — refusing to build the necessary skills of coding in young Australians) through to the critical financial investment needed to see more IT graduates emerge from our tertiary and vocational sectors. 

Business is moving in part to tackle this. For example, last year, then Westpac CEO Gail Kelly announced the establishment of a $100 million fund to help invest in IT skills, looking to lift the skills base of the sector by training more women in IT (and helping address an obvious gender imbalance within the industry).

However, business can’t address this all on its own. 

We need all sides of politics to be talking up the importance of this sector to our nation’s long-term prosperity. I still shake my head when I recall a speech that Trade Minister Andrew Robb made in San Francisco last year where he indicated that the most important sectors to Australia were mining and farming — to an audience of IT professionals.

We need to back the talk up with solid policy.

Not for the sake of training more talent that would then leave our shores. But to ensure that innovation can be driven within this country.

One thing stands out for me, having spoken with a wide range of people in the US: the success of Silicon Valley and those other innovation hot spots is the geographic concentration of talent.

Businesses will move to where the talent exists. Start-ups spawn if the talented people are nearby to make far-fetched, disruptive ideas a reality. 

That’s what the end game has to be: having the local talent, and spurring on the rise of new businesses and economic activity that can broaden the dimensions of our economy. This is to ensure our future fortune is not just tied to what we dig out of the ground, or grow out of it. 

Ed Husic is parliamentary secretary to the Opposition Treasury spokesman. 

This opinion piece was first published in The Australian IT section, on Tuesday the 17th of February 2015.


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