Skills-starved businesses have welcomed the chance for closer engagement with the government as it brings forward a review of Australia’s most in-demand technology skills.

Australia’s economy is facing up to the implications of chronic shortfall of skilled technology workers as it works to figure out how to meet industry demand that ACS’s recently released Australia’s Digital Pulse 2019 report projects will need an estimated 100,000 more workers – reaching 800,000 people in total – by 2024.

The review of the Skilled Occupation List will involve extensive consultation with industry, employers, unions, and individuals in an effort to ensure skilled migration programs better reflect the skills that employers need.

“As a Government, our role is to ensure that Australian employers can access workers with the skills needed to fill the jobs of today and tomorrow when they can’t be met by the domestic workforce,” Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business Michaelia Cash said during the announcement into the review.

Fixing “backwards” thinking about tech skills

A series of changes to skilled-migration programs this year has seen the government introduce fast-tracked visas for regional workers, shorten the length of some visas to just two years, clamp down on employer underpayment, update the National Skills Needs List, and extend the Global Talent – Employer Sponsored (GTES) visa scheme indefinitely.

Most recently, the government – which has called technology jobs “very important” to the economy – announced it would launch a network of recruiters to identify and lure 5000 “exceptional” workers.

Australia is a favoured global destination for skilled workers – a recent World Economic Forum report cited figures placing us as the 6th most desired destination for skilled workers – but its fluid visa programs have been a continuous problem.

The challenging climate for skilled migration has attracted howls of protest from major tech employers like Telstra and Atlassian, whose CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes has previously lambasted the government for “thinking about skilled immigration completely backwards”.

The new opportunity to engage with government can’t come quickly enough for Dionne Niven, global head of people at Australian hotel-technology firm SiteMinder.

The fast-growing firm – which recently hit $100m in revenues – has found the government’s recent changes to migration programs to be “good first steps” but Niven warns that recent changes “neither solve our short-term challenges nor make it any easier to hire the tech skills we need, here and now.”

“If we really want to unlock a flow of skilled workers for key industries, they are not enough.... we invite the government to collaborate with us in the tech industry on where the real needs lie and how they can be addressed.”

Let’s do the time warp

The review comes in response to the challenges that employers have had in matching rapidly-changing job descriptions – particularly in technology jobs – with the Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations (ANZSCO) codes enumerated in the list.

ANZSCO was established in 2002 to normalise job roles across Australia and New Zealand, and is maintained by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

The current First Edition Revision 1 – which added just 16 occupations to the previous list – was completed in 2009.

Given the rapid development of the technology industry over the past decade, matching today’s in-demand jobs with the strictures of the ANZSCO hierarchy has proven difficult for employers – limiting their ability to justify visa applications lodged under a range of preferential skills programs.

This has left them trying to work with vague and antiquated job descriptions such as ICT Business Analyst – described as someone who “identifies and communicates with users to formulate and produce a requirements specification to create system and software solutions” – and Systems Analyst, which “evaluates processes and methods used in existing ICT systems, proposes modifications, additional system components or new systems to meet user needs as expressed in specifications and other documentation.”

Other ICT-related ANZSCO jobs include Computer Network and Systems Engineer – someone who “plans, develops, deploys, tests and optimises network and system services...especially environments with multiple operating systems and configurations” – and Network Administrator, who “installs and maintains hardware and software, documents diagnosis and resolution of faults” and handles “operational tasks” as well as help-desk support and user training.

The list was most recently updated in March, when updates to the Temporary Skill Shortage (TSS) visa were implemented to provide separate STSOL, MLTSSL and ROL skill lists, better linking skills requirements with the nature of the need they are filling.

Modernising job descriptions

Updating the ANZSCO list has been mooted for some time but was last year pushed back until at least 2021 by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), which noted that “a review of this nature would be labour and resource intensive”.

Now that the government has committed to the review, updating the skilled occupation list – which has 508 jobs separated into short-term, medium and long-term, and regional occupation lists – will give industry the chance to agitate for a more relevant set of ICT-related job descriptions.

Some of today’s most in-demand ICT skills – which, according to specialist recruitment firm Hays IT, include data scientists, Agile practitioners, cyber security consultants, and cloud architects – simply didn’t exist in their current form, or at all.

That creates problems for employers trying to shoehorn their needs into other categories, potentially also taking the place of skilled technicians in those categories.

Skilled migrants love Australia as a potential destination to work and settle, but continuing upheaval in the migrant visa process has left many skilled workers in limbo as they struggle to tick the boxes on a list that was last updated in the same year the Apple iPad was introduced.

The industry has fundamentally transformed since then – and if the skills list doesn’t move with the times, it risks kneecapping an industry that is desperate for talent wherever it comes from.

“As technology continues to play a central role in enabling change and developing new services and products, most companies are committed to investing in IT and increasing IT headcount,” Hays IT notes.

“Even organisations that have had a year of transformation and technology implementations will continue to face another wave of disruption.”