Employers’ bias towards degree-qualified workers is choking Australia’s ICT skills pipeline, according to a new report that found embracing workers trained through non-degree pathways would boost productivity and “unlock” 31,000 workers from diverse backgrounds.

Lingering barriers to tech jobs are preventing women, those with disabilities and First Nations Australians from moving into technology roles, Accenture’s Break Down the Barriers report found.

Just 1 in 3 university students in STEM courses are women, the report notes, with 1 in 20 having a disability and 1 in 100 identifying as First Nations Australians – leaving a total pool of around 1.18 million workers – including 420,000 unemployed and 760,000 underemployed workers – whose skills are being ignored by outdated hiring policies.

Australia’s recruitment market is fostering antiquated ideas about what skills make candidates suitable, the report says, noting that 90 per cent of currently advertised Australian STEM roles require university qualifications – well behind the US and Canada, where just 60 per cent of jobs require degrees.

“Let’s catch up to other economies and focus on skills, not pedigree,” the report recommends, “by expanding talent supply”.

Employers could recruit 31,000 workers from diverse backgrounds by 2030 if they embraced a policy of hiring at least 20 per cent of ‘early career hires’ from such pathways, Accenture predicted, while advising companies to implement inclusive skill-based hiring, creating “inclusive places to land”, making skills-based hiring ‘business as usual’, and piloting alternative pathway recruitment for in-demand roles.

“We have a real opportunity to make a difference,” Accenture Australia managing director Tenielle Colussi said as the report was released.

“By removing barriers and ensuring job opportunities are open to those who have alternate pathway experience, or offering programs that include alternate pathways, we’re not only solving for a talent gap – but creating exciting and fulfilling opportunities for amazing individuals who would have remained hidden in the workforce.”

Parents, teachers are helping drag the chain

The report is the latest addition to a growing body of research that continues to find ICT and STEM recruiters are struggling to bulk up the future workforce, with gender diversity still lopsided and poor training creating a shortfall of digital workers.

Even as graduates explore new avenues for career development – for example, fast-tracking their careers in well-resourced global US firms – government bodies have been tweaking policies to help, for example by pushing the university sector to engage disadvantaged students, extending the period international IT graduates can stay in Australia, and boosting the number of fee-free TAFE and VET places from 180,000 to 480,000 next year.

A more flexible recruitment strategy can deliver a host of benefits for underrepresented groups, including speed to competency, tailored support, practical integrated learning, flexible experience, industry connections, and courses that pay students to learn.

Truly opening up the skills pipeline in ICT and other industries, the report notes, will require the ICT and other sectors to embrace alternative career development pathways – including vocational training through VET courses, microcredentials, intensive pre-work bootcamps, upskilling programs that lead to placement, traineeships, apprenticeships, cadetships, and ‘adjacent roles’ that provide opportunities for workers to consolidate and progress their skills.

“This isn’t just about corporate responsibility,” said Steven Worrall, managing director of report sponsor Microsoft Australia, noting the “incredible opportunity that remains untapped in our diverse workforce.”

“It’s a strategy proven to yield significant economic and social returns.”

For all the industry and government efforts to date, however, schools, teachers, and parents also bear blame for pushing talented students towards university when they might be happier pursuing highly sought-after vocational training.

“Almost half of the jobs of the future will come from the VET sector,” Minister for Skills and Training Brendan O’Connor recently told ABC News Breakfast, “[but] historically, there’s been a somewhat wrong view that it’s the lesser pathway to employment.”

“We need to make sure that people understand there are great opportunities to have a great job, secure employment, and good wages. We really do need to elevate the status” of non-university training pathways such as VET.

Yet doing so will, among other things, require teachers and parents to “allow young people to focus on what they’d like to do,” O’Connor said – warning that arbitrarily pushing students towards university because they got good Year 12 results “really is not helpful to the student, the worker, [or] our economy, which equally relies on the VET sector as it does with higher education.”

“The best work you can possibly do is something that is in demand and something you’re passionate about.”