02 Dec 2016
tech skills shortage

Nurture Local Tech Talent or Import Skills?

Australia has a tech skills shortage. The Turnbull Government’s talk of an innovation agenda has buoyed the local sector but fixing the knowledge gap is easier said than done.

While Australia’s ICT sector continues to grow, the number of graduates in this field has declined since the early 2000s. In fact, Deloitte predicts that between now and 2020, we will be short on 100,000 workers. Also worrying is Australia’s significant fall in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science rankings. We dropped from 18th to 28th in year 4 mathematics. Increasing the number of students pursuing technology careers would be a great start. So would equipping the next generation with sufficient STEM skills.

The War On 457 Visas

But that doesn’t solve the current skills shortage.  Enter the 457 temporary skilled  work visa. By hiring overseas workers, tech companies have injected much-needed expertise into the local start-up scene. But lately, both major government parties expressed their desire to tighten restrictions on these visas.

Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull want changes. Liberal-National MP George Christensen called for a total ban on 457 visas in Central and North Queensland. Meanwhile, Victorian Minister for Small Business, Innovation and Trade, Philip Dalidakis believes we should increase the number of 457 visas to fill the skills gap in this sector.

But, Greens MP David Shoebridge disagrees, saying “Australia has real depth in IT skills”. He argues the jobs currently being given to overseas workers should instead be going to our own IT graduates and IT professionals. So who’s right?

We Need To Adress The Tech Skills Shortage Now

The industry itself is pretty clear. Speaking to The Australian, SafetyCulture CEO Luke Anear said hiring local workers is always easier. But he argues Australia does not have the talent currently required to fill the skills gap in the technology sector. [Subscription Required]

Atlassian Co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes echoes this sentiment, labelling the proposed changes “dangerous” for the local technology industry. He says 457 visas are integral to the company’s local operations, with approximately a quarter of its one thousand Australian workers here under the scheme.

Cannon-Brookes also rejects the notion that using the scheme is a cost-cutting exercise. He says it’s much more expensive to hire and house foreign workers and their families, meaning the company is currently investing more than they would if they replaced 457 visa holders with Australian workers.

Import Now, Build For The Future

Regardless of the opposing positions on the issue, there’s no disagreement that as a nation it’s vital we invest in tech education to ensure the next generation is skilled and has the passion for  a career in IT. But this is a process which will take many years.

Continuing investment in STEM education combined with a temporary skilled migration program allowing foreign workers to fill immediate roles means we can have the best of both worlds. The current tech boom represents a huge opportunity for Australian innovation. Without the right people to make it happen, we risk falling further behind.

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