Is Australia going to be a driver or a passenger in the next technology wave? That’s the question we’ve been wrestling with ever since the World Economic Forum coined the term ‘fourth industrial revolution’. The term, according to the WEF, refers to the dramatic economic change wrought by exponential technologies such as artificial intelligence, automation and the internet of things.

It’s clear that the world is headed towards a substantial realignment. Traditional industries are going to be transformed. Up to a half of current work activities are susceptible to automation, and the winners on the global stage will be those countries that can capitalise on the opportunities presented by new technology.

Which is why it’s so concerning that Australia might not have the skills it needs to succeed in a transforming world.

We are staring down the barrel of a substantial ICT skills shortage in this country. The industry is booming, but our skills pipeline has not kept up, and now it’s hurting Australian businesses and limiting our opportunities for the future.

The latest edition of ACS Australia’s Digital Pulse, released just a few weeks ago, has revealed that Australia will need nearly 200,000 more ICT workers in the next five years to become a world leader in ICT. It needs nearly 100,000 to just to keep up with current demand.

What’s more, employers are finding it increasingly difficult to fill specialised roles, particularly in the exploding fields of artificial intelligence, cyber security, data science and blockchain.

We’re not producing nearly enough new professionals quickly enough to ensure that Australia is positioned to weather the coming storm. Many of the professionals that we are producing are being lured away, with wages for AI experts in the US and China, for example, often exceeding US$300,000.

This is being exacerbated by a decline in interest from our younger generation for technical roles. In 2003, for example, there were 6580 domestic undergraduate IT degrees completed. In 2016, there were fewer than 4000, well short of the 20,000+ per year we need just to keep up with the demand for new ICT workers.

At the same time, Australian students’ performance in science and mathematics has declined over the last decade and, as ACS Australia’s Digital Pulse reveals, we’re now notably behind the world leaders.

There are long term signs of hope. The new Digital Technologies curriculum introduced in schools over the past few years is promising to engage Australia students in ICT earlier and make digital topics more appealing to younger Australians, although we’ll have to wait until we can see the fruits of those efforts.

In the meantime, skills need be on the lips of every politician, every business leader. We can’t permanently rely on migrant workers to fill in for our skills shortages.

Most countries are racing to foster, attract, grow and retain the skills for the future and we need to do the same. We need as many skill development programs as we can get to prepare Australia for the coming wave.

We need to be innovative in the ways we meet the global demand for talent and skill. We need government agencies to implement more comprehensive internal skill expansion programs. We need existing worker retraining programs that are laser-focused on the jobs of the future, and to engage an aging work force. As traditional disciplines converge, we need businesses to get pro-active about staff capability through micro-credentialling. Businesses that currently employ large numbers of migrant workers should be required to upskill Australian workers, transferring those skills into the Australian workforce. We need soft and transferrable skills to be taught in schools, universities and business.

If Australia can’t produce enough skilled technology professionals then we may well be left far behind – a follower and not a leader.

If you’d like to read ACS Australia’s Digital Pulse 2018 for an insight into the state of ICT in Australia, the full report can be found here.