Listening to and reading last week’s Federal Budget, I was reminded of a quote from former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. Speaking at #DisinfoWeek in 2017 Ms Albright noted that:
"Citizens are speaking to their governments using 21st century technologies, governments are listening on 20th century technology and providing 19th century solutions."
In particular, what brought this to mind was the $525 million skills package presented by the government as part of the budget.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m ecstatic that the government is talking about skills, and putting real money behind developing Australia’s skills base.
This money is sorely needed to ensure that Australia can continue to be among the world most advanced economies, to enable our workforce to continue to be one of the world’s best.
The problem was that the government seemed to be focussing on the wrong skills.
Treasurer Frydenberg spoke of apprenticeships. He talked about “bakers, bricklayers, carpenters and plumbers”.
Technology skills were barely mentioned.
Most of the allotted budget is going to the VET sector, with the largest allocation, a little over $200 million, going to support new apprenticeships.
The only time technology comes even close to being mentioned is in the allocation of “$62.4 million over four years from 2019-20 to expand second chance learning in Language, Literacy, Numeracy and Digital Skills to upskill at-risk workers,” and a $20.1 million investment in “emerging skills”.
Labor, it should be noted, took a similar approach in its budget reply – the only real difference in policy seemed to be the size of the budget, with Labor promising to deliver $330 million for apprenticeships.
That, I believe, is the critical flaw both the government’s and Labor’s plans.
The jobs of tomorrow are technology jobs.
Not trades and physical labour.
During last year’s government inquiry into the Future of Work, Atlassian CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes noted that “every company is going to be a software company” and he’s right.
This focus on trades is short-term thinking at best, a way to get untrained young people into jobs now, but offering no long term solutions.
What was needed was a plan to get Australians better qualified for the industries of the next century, and it needed to go hand in hand with a vigorous plan to encourage the uptake of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) subjects in primary and secondary school.
Australia has been falling behind in STEAM, with PISA scores that have been on the decline since 2006, and we need to arrest that decline and get more of our young people trained up in the jobs of the future.
(As an aside, the government did pledge $3.4 million over four years to get more females into STEM, which is a positive move, but $850K per year is hardly going to move the needle.)
So, let’s look at the numbers.
Even in the short term, the government’s approach does not add up.
ACS Australia’s Digital Pulse 2018 report revealed that over the next five years Australia will need 100,000 new technology workers just to keep up with demand. To become a world leader in technology we need twice that.
Even the government’s own five-year projections point to a future workforce in dire need of technology professionals.
According to the Department of Jobs and Small Business, the ICT professions as a whole are projected to experience 16% growth in employment numbers in the next five years.
Technicians and trade workers are projected to grow 5.5% in that same period.
And looking under the breakdown of growth for what the government classifies as “technicians and trade workers”, the two occupations with the highest growth projections are: ICT and telecommunications technicians and ICT support technicians.
And those are just the short term numbers, covering the period from 2018 to 2023.
When you look out to a longer timeframe, the training of more Australians in technology skills becomes even more critical.
A recent report from McKinsey, Australia’s Automation Opportunity, highlights the issue.
Looking out to 2030, McKinsey expects a drop of 11% in the total number hours spent on physical and manual tasks thanks to AI and automation. In the same period the total number of hours spent on technological jobs will increase by 66%. So physical roles are declining even as hours spent on technological tasks as exploding.
That’s why it’s critical that the government shift its focus. We should be upskilling for the jobs of the 21st century, not jobs that are going to be declining as we head into the next century.
We need to focus on STEM, on digital literacy and making sure that young Australians have access to the best technology training that the budget can support.
That’s how we maintain our standard of living, and ensure Australia has a place in the 21st century and beyond.