Australia can’t rely on university graduates and foreign workers to combat a predicted shortfall in digital skills, and should instead look at retraining workers already in the industry.

This is one of the main findings of the latest version of Australia’s Digital Pulse report by the ACS and Deloitte Access Economics, which will be unveiled this Wednesday.

Last year’s report sought a “multifaceted” approach to tackling an expected digital skills shortage by 2020.

The approach largely focused on making ICT and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers more attractive to new entrants, combating the industry’s perceived image problem.

A year on, "increasing the number of Australian students studying ICT-related subjects and courses at the primary, secondary, university and vocational levels of education” is still seen as important.

But this year’s Digital Pulse recognises a more immediate answer is required.

“While ICT degree graduates have recently picked up, they represent only one percent of the existing ICT workforce each year,” the report said.

“It is important that the Australian workforce is not wholly reliant on the pipeline of ICT students and graduates as the sole domestic source of ICT workers and skills to support the growing digital economy.”

The growth in demand for ICT skills is already evident. This year’s report estimates that Australia’s ICT workforce grew by 23,000 in the past year.

Most of this skills demand was satisfied by looking internationally. Australia took in a net 19,600 foreign workers (including 13,900 on 457 visas) over the period, suggesting as little as 3000 new ICT roles were filled domestically.

However, as with graduate numbers, foreign intake isn't necessarily seen as a desirable way to keep meeting jobs growth.

“Relying on workers from overseas can assist in addressing acute shortages of particular ICT skills in the short term,” the Digital Pulse said.

“However, this is not a suitable solution for sustaining Australia’s increasing demand for digital skills in the long-term future.”

Look inside

Instead, this year’s Digital Pulse proposes a new mid-term solution to the problem.

“Our greatest resource for developing the digital skills demanded by Australian businesses now and in the future is the current workforce,” it said.

“Developing the digital skills of both existing ICT workers and the broader Australian workforce will be an important factor in ensuring that there is an adequate supply of ICT skills to support the growing digital economy.”

The report notes the importance of Australian companies engaging staff “in ICT-related professional development.”

There is plenty of opportunity for employers to provide more digital development opportunities to staff.

“Results from the ACS Employment Survey show that 40 percent of respondents undertook ICT-related training in 2015,” the Digital Pulse notes.

The same survey found others received soft skills training, while 21 percent received no training at all. It’s these kinds of gaps that – if plugged – could have a material impact on the digital skills shortage.

The Digital Pulse also sees a role for governments “to highlight the importance of ICT workforce development by prioritising programs that support ICT-related skills development.”

The rise and rise of soft skills

This year’s Digital Pulse report also emphasizes the growing importance of business and soft skills in the portfolio of skills expected of ICT workers.

Information Age has previously detailed the most desirable soft skills in the digital age.

“Employers that are hiring ICT workers are demanding a range of technology-related skills,” the report said.

“However, in addition to these ICT-specific skills, LinkedIn data highlights the fact that businesses are increasingly demanding that their ICT workers possess broader and more general skills.

“Analysis of the skills possessed by ICT workers who have recently moved jobs in the LinkedIn database shows that 8 of the top 20 skills (including 6 of the top 10) are broader than core technical ICT skills.

“These include skills such as relationship management, customer service, strategic planning and contract negotiation – many of which could be transferrable from other occupations and industries.”

The report said that the broadening ICT skill set seen as valuable by employers was largely the result of ICT’s integration into the business.

“The ICT workforce no longer operates as a silo, and it is now important that ICT workers are able to communicate on complex technical issues and the impact that these could have on the business,” the report noted.

“Of particular note is the fact that many of the more general capabilities highlighted above require workers within technological functions to have good ‘soft skills’, such as communication and presentation skills.”