“Suboptimal training” in digital skills means Australia is likely to suffer a 372,000-strong critical shortage of digital workers by 2026, a new report has found as the NSW Government updates its high school digital studies curriculum – for the first time in 20 years.

Training in NSW and high schools elsewhere has not kept pace with surging demand for digital capabilities that will add over 420,000 high-skilled jobs through 2026, the Digital Skills Organisation’s (DSO’s) Growing Australia’s Digital Workforce report found.

With a projected deficit of 130,000 digital experts (those 7 per cent of workers who require specific skills as central functional skills) and 242,000 digitally enabled workers (the 43 per cent of the workforce that rely on digital skills to augment their functional skills) by 2026, the report notes, supply of relevant skills continues to lag demand.

“The increase in demand for digital workers shows no signs of slowing, with relevant skills and experience desperately needed across Australia’s finance, technology and business sectors,” said Patrick Kidd, CEO of the Future Skills Organisation – one of the government’s ten Jobs and Skills Councils, into which the DSO is morphing as it expands its remit on the back of a series of successful pilots.

“The future Australian workforce will require digital skills across every industry, and every job.”

Training pipelines simply aren’t providing enough digitally skilled workers, the report found, noting that even those undertaking digital training aren’t being taught the right things.

Despite 62 per cent of people completing VET IT qualifications during 2021, DSO found, half of those graduates reported that the skills they learned during training are not relevant to their current job – and fewer than 1 in 3 of them said the training had improved their skills.

“Learners are not being taught the skills that industry demands,” the report warns, “resulting in suboptimal training and employment outcomes. The training system isn’t flexible enough to quickly adjust to what industries need.”

The report singled out a range of issues with the current system, including low awareness of digital careers and complex pathways to build them; inconsistent and outdated skills hobbled by a lack of industry endorsed skill assessment; a “rigid and occupation focused” approach to training; and ineffective industry engagement.

By pilot testing an employer-led, skills-focused system based on uniform Digital Skill Standards, the DSO has established a scalable training model that will be used to help finance, technology, and business organisations overhaul their training through new Networks of Digital Excellence (NoDEs).

This model reorients training from a qualification to a skills focus, using employer-led approaches to identify skilling needs and collaborate on skilling responses.

The FSO will build on the report’s empirical findings to create what Kidd called a “flexible, robust and innovative VET system that provides opportunities for all Australians to acquire the in-demand skills of tomorrow and to meet industry needs.”

Starting too late?

Deficiencies in the VET system are only part of the problem, however: even in high school, students are being taught with digital curricula that are outdated at best, and completely inadequate at worst.

Despite piecemeal efforts to introduce relevant digital skills training to high school students, experts have long warned that the current education system is turning students off STEM subjects at an early age.

This can hardly be surprising given that In NSW, for example, the digital skills curriculum was last updated in 2003 – four years before the iPhone’s introduction, when Facebook was still a thought bubble and clouds were only found in the sky.

The newly updated curriculum – which includes an updated Computing Technology syllabus for Years 7 to 10 and Software Engineering, Computing Technology Life Skills and Enterprise Computing for Years 11 and 12 – will be rolled out from next year.

Subjects to be studied include user experience design, mechatronics, data analysis and visualisation, object-oriented programming, AI/ML, and virtual and augmented reality – which will be taught through a combination of hands-on projects and problem-solving scenarios.

The new curriculum will give NSW high school students “a head start on future careers in these fields,” Prue Car, NSW Minister for Education and Early Learning, said in introducing the new curriculum.

“In a rapidly changing field, it’s well past time for a proper update to the curriculum,” Car said. Our teachers will now be able to draw from up-to-date content, so they can focus on getting the best outcomes for students, not spending unnecessary hours reworking old syllabuses.”

Blakehurst High School principal Sophie Kapsimalis was among those welcoming the new program, which she said “not only helps students develop transferable skills that are applicable to many different industries, but also to develop critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity.”

“By choosing Computing Technology subjects, students gain a competitive edge and position themselves for a wide range of career opportunities.”