Australia will need to find an extra 100,000 workers over the next five years if it is to keep pace with rising demand for ICT skills.

The forecast is contained in Australia’s Digital Pulse (pdf), a new report by ACS and Deloitte Access Economics launched by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

“We need to take urgent action to significantly enhance the ICT capabilities of our workforce,” ACS President Brenda Aynsley said at the report's launch in Canberra.

“We need a much larger and deeper pool of skilled ICT professionals if we are to remain a globally competitive nation.”

The report found there were “around 600,000 people working in ICT-relevant occupations” in Australia – making up five percent of the Australian labour force.

Of that 600,000, about half work in ICT-related industries, with the other half found in sectors that have embraced technology-driven ways of working, such as financial and professional services.

And as more industry sectors are being disrupted digitally, demand for ICT skills is increasing.

“Solid jobs growth is expected for the ICT sector over the coming six years,” the report stated.

“Overall employment in the ICT sector is expected to grow by 2.5 percent per year over the next six years to 2020.

“This is higher than forecast growth in employment for the economy as a whole, which is forecast to grow by around 1.6 percent over the same period.

“The outperformance of the ICT sector reflects its importance in Australia’s workforce and its role in enabling the digital economy.”

Tertiary troubles

If Australia is to find 100,000 new ICT workers in just five years, it will need to overcome several key challenges.

One is the continued low number of enrolments and ICT graduates emerging from universities.

Although numbers have stabilised since around 2008, they showed little signs of recovery to levels of interest in ICT studies experienced in the early 2000s.

"If you walk into universities across Australia there has been a stunning decline in enrolments and completions over the past 15 years," Deloitte Access Economics director John O’Mahony told the report's official launch at the National Press Club in Canberra.

O'Mahony said that 15 years ago, ICT enrolments numbered 40,000 and around 8000 students completed university studies each year.

"But after the dotcom and mining boom we now have enrolments of just 27,000 students and graduations of just 5000," he said.

"With that pipeline of graduates drying up the risk is we won't meet the workforce numbers needed to fuel Australia’s digital economy."

Sullied image

An equally difficult challenge is that ICT has an image problem.

That problem was exemplified by a 2013 Australian Workforce Planning Authority study that noted ICT’s perception as “predominantly male ICT professionals engaged in deskbound, repetitive, isolating jobs”.

“The argument that the sector suffers from an ‘image problem’ which affects its ability to attract high quality students perhaps still has merit,” the new ACS/Deloitte report noted.

“At a colloquial level, the ICT industry is consistently portrayed with this stereotype in popular culture (for example, in TV programs such as The IT Crowd), while other professions are gloried in terms of money and prestige in the entertainment space (such as law, finance and medicine).

“This could be contributing to the industry’s image problem amongst younger generations in particular.”

ACS CEO Andrew Johnson urged students, parents and careers advisors to “look beyond stereotypes and see the future ICT professional with new eyes”.

“Digital disruption [is] creating jobs requiring ICT skills within a diverse range of sectors and professions,” he said.

“The data shows there is huge versatility in ICT.”

Stay tuned to Information Age for a full analysis of Australia’s Digital Pulse.