For years now, government, industry, and recruitment agencies have been claiming there is a technology skills shortage.

But what is the real story behind the skills shortage? And what needs to change to improve the Australia’s IT workforce?

In part two of this four-part series, Information Age takes a look at why degrees don’t guarantee jobs, and the difficulties of having broad experience.

Geoff Augutis runs his own managed services provider in regional Queensland – the aptly named Queensland Computers.

He spoke with Information Age on a Microsoft Teams call from his car on a sunny afternoon in the Sunshine State.

“Look, there’s certainly no shortage of degrees and TAFE certificates,” he said.

“I think we’ve got a perception issue with our industry. What we’re finding is the people who leave school and want to work in IT tends to be a very specific demographic – typically they’re young men who aren’t necessarily excellent at communicating and want to work solo writing code.

“But in a business like mine there are only one or two people like that; the rest of us are out there working closely with clients.”

Geoff talks quickly and with purpose about his experience facing the IT skills shortage in regional Australia.

Speaking with Geoff, it’s clear there is a problem. As his business Queensland Computers has expanded – it has enterprise and government clients from Brisbane to Rockhampton – Geoff has been constantly hiring and is genuinely frustrated by the pool of talent to choose from.

The issue for Geoff isn’t that Australia doesn’t have any people who want to work in IT, or have some qualifications to work in the sector, but that their education and understanding is often ill-suited for the professional realities.

“Often when we get people saying they’re good at IT, it means they can build a gaming computer,” he said.

“But IT repairs are small part of what IT means – in reality, nine out of ten tickets we do are software-based, human-based, fault-based.

“Trust me, the guys on $120,000 a year aren’t building gaming computers.”

Importantly, Geoff speaks with a lot of young people looking for entry level positions to get their start in an industry that, by all accounts, is in high demand and well-paid.

The results, he said, are underwhelming.

Not the right training

“My biggest bugbear is that we punch these kids through TAFE courses that may be a useful starting point but don’t have much specific value,” Geoff said.

“It’s disheartening for them, too. There are kids who have a passion for IT and computers. Then they go to a job search agency that points them in the direction of a TAFE course that I immediately toss out.

“I think it can be more destructive to waste their time because that person might go on to think qualifications aren’t important, when they are – you just have to have the right ones.”

It’s a similar story with university degrees.

“When we get someone who has an IT degree and dump them into a role, they often sink pretty quickly – unless they’ve independently upskilled in another area,” Geoff said.

He complained that many graduates lack a deep understanding of specific environments they would be expected to work on, such Unix-based systems, or individual cloud environments like Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure.

“If I change anything, I would give kids more industry insight about what jobs are available and what specialisation aligns best with them,” Geoff said.

“Industry exposure and work experience is the biggest step; the rest of it we can control in industry by asking for certain entry requirements for jobs.”

Parts of the IT industry last year called on the government to help develop a new pathway into the profession, one involving an apprenticeship model that would focus heavily on workforce training.

A $10.7 million trial of the Digital Skills Cadetship program was outlined in this year’s budget with the stated aim of building tailored workforce training and on-the-job experience over a six month cadetship.

30 years in IT

We’re again nearing one of the difficulties inherent in Australia’s IT skills shortage (as outlined in the first part of this series): if you aren’t specialised enough, you can’t get hired; but if you are too specialised, the market might soon move away from your area of expertise.

Graham Plowman had a similar experience.

In late 2019, Graham wrote an article for Information Age questioning the narrative of the skills shortage that has been commonly told around the country for years.

Why was it that he, a man with three decades of IT experience, couldn’t find a job while there was a shortage for IT workers?

At the time, Graham was critical of senior management in organisations that he perceived were too focused on having the latest and greatest technology but were inept at nurturing the kinds of people who could effectively operate it.

Graham has since found work and recognises a shift in the Australian IT jobs market due to the pandemic, but he’s still wary about saying there is an outright skills shortage.

“I think there’s too much of a focus on individual technologies,” Graham told Information Age.

“Say you’ve got someone with a lot of experiencing programming in different languages across different businesses – and they’ve got professional qualifications – you would think those skills would be transferrable.

“If you can program in C, for example, there’s a fairly good chance you can program in Java.”

But when he was looking for work, Graham found it difficult to express his willingness and abilities in the early stages of an application.

The principle he believes in, that an experienced IT professional will have transferrable skills, wasn’t reflected by hiring processes that scanned resumés for specific skillsets and tested them on rigid online platforms.

“There are plenty of people like myself who have been in the industry for a long time and may have developed 150 different skills, but if you don’t have the exact one an employer is looking for right now – or you don’t get 100 per cent on a test – then you are completely discounted,” he said.

“Sometimes it feels like the fact you’ve shown you can do other things gets used against you, as a way of filtering you out. The result is companies don’t get the workers they’re really looking for and people like me spend time sitting on the sidelines.”

A new paradigm

The business community is aware of criticisms about inflexible hiring processes and is looking to adopt different strategies to find and attract high quality IT professionals.

One such company is Australian customer experience (CX) platform Cyara whose talent acquisition manager, Paula Kilby, said is trying to give candidates a more personalised experience.

This includes regular feedback for applicants to know where they stand in the hiring process.

Crucially, Kilby’s team is active in its approach to finding new employees and has moved away from what she called a “post-and-pray approach to recruiting”.

“Experience has taught us that while not everyone is actively out there looking for a new career opportunity, many people are open to a discussion if approached in the right way,” Kilby said.

“Often, we find an initial conversation turns into a longer and deeper one that allows us to understand whether their ambitions align with our opportunities.”

For all the good a shift toward active recruitment might bring to people like Graham who have been in the industry for a long time, it doesn’t help those who are struggling to get their foot in the door because, despite having qualifications and sufficient specialisation, they are locked out of entry level positions because of a lack of on-the-job experience.

In part three we talk to graduates who are blocked out of taking the next step in their careers. Why? Because they don’t have the necessary paperwork.