Australians have embraced cyber security and artificial intelligence (AI) qualifications over the past five years but the industry needs to turbo-charge recruitment to fill its skills gap, according to newly released 2021 Census figures that confirm the number of IT qualified workers in Australia has grown by 36 per cent since 2016.

The latest tranche of data from last year’s mostly online Census, which was released this week by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) after 14 months of analysis, identified more than 334,000 ICT professionals and managers in the workforce – an increase of 86,000 since the previous Census five years ago.

The most popular careers, according to the ABS figures, were ICT Support and Test Engineers (up 54 per cent to 15,635 people); Software and Applications Programmers (up 47 per cent to 116,927 people); ICT Business and Systems Analysts (up 47 per cent to 34,793 people); and Database and Systems Administrators, and ICT Security Specialists (up 45 per cent to 34,293 people).

Security Science was Australia’s fastest growing qualification – up 460 percent to 5,805 people – while the number of people with AI qualifications doubled, to 630.

The figures also highlighted the industry’s persistent gender gap, with just one in five ICT professionals and managers identifying as female – although, promisingly, the figure was substantially higher among workers under 30 years of age, with one in three workers in that group identifying as female.

The new data “reflects the rising prominence of the digital economy in Australia,” Australian statistician Dr David Gruen said as the ABS launched a broad range of new Census data – which also revealed that 2.5 million Australians were working from home on Census day; that Australians are working fewer hours on average; and that Software and Application Programmer has climbed into the Top 20 occupations in Australia.

Surging demand for programmers has seen Australia tapping the global workforce, with two-thirds of Software and Applications Programmers reporting that they were born overseas – and 24,000 programmers arriving here since 2016.

That figure made programmers the third most common occupation for recent overseas arrivals, with Indians representing the largest cohort of overseas-born developers – in line with recent efforts to bolster migration from that country by promoting mutual recognition of IT qualifications.

The figures also reflected a dramatic shift away from pre-digital occupations such as keyboard operators – of which there were just 41,000 last year, compared to 170,000 stenographers and typists 50 years ago.

Targeted relief for yawning skills gaps

Identifying the areas of strongest demand is critical to helping the sector refine its strategies for boosting the pipeline of skilled workers – and the new figures suggest that the industry has its work cut out for it.

Previous analyses have shown that Australia will require an additional 653,000 tech workers by 2030 – which means that reaching that target would require the addition of 81,625 IT workers each year through 2030.

The ABS figures, however, confirm that current development initiatives have taken five years to reach that milestone – suggesting that current qualification schemes must be accelerated five-fold to meet industry development targets.

The cyber security industry, for its part, has added 4,500 professionals in five years – but will need to increase this six-fold if it is going to boost numbers by 30,000 between now and 2026, as industry figures have suggested is necessary.

Given that simply importing more workers isn’t going to close the skills gap, the figures highlight just how important it is for industry, academic and government bodies to work together to satisfy demand for digital skills.

The new figures “illustrate just how important the technology sector is to Australia’s economy and wider society,” noted Chris Vein, CEO of ACS, which will this week launch its new Guide to the IT Professions report highlighting which jobs are increasingly in demand.

“Almost every business, government department and community organisation are dependent upon IT to deliver services and maintain the nation’s high living standards,” Vein said.

“The strong growth in key technology roles is only going to continue – while at the same time we are seeing new, emerging data and cyber security-focused positions increasingly being in demand as the industry evolves. There is a lot more to be done in this space.”