Over 200,000 young people and post school leavers are expected to benefit from a new government-backed Virtual Work Experience (VWE) program that is particularly aiming to bring disabled students, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, into the ICT industry.

Designed by industry lobby group Tech Council of Australia (TCA) with the backing of youth employment organisation Year13, the VWE program is based around online modules that help students experience day-to-day life in a range of occupations.

Interactive videos and exercises let participants experience life as a Navy electronics technician, Microsoft cyber security specialist, Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) data scientist, NBN network engineer, and more.

Developed through engagement with corporate sponsors, the modules are aimed at 14- to 25-year-olds who are either currently in school, or have recently left school and are considering their career options.

Many young Australians “would love to get into a tech or tech-related job, but just don’t know where to start,” Year13 co-founder and co-CEO Will Stubley said.

“This is about making sure that all young people have an equal chance at getting into the career of their dreams, and finding a path that speaks to them.”

The service is now available in over 220 schools through the Career Tools platform, while a targeted social media campaign is expected to reach more than 200,000 young people in the next two years.

ICT is “a very egalitarian industry,” Tech Council chair Robyn Denholm said as the new program was launched, and “we want more women, indigenous Australians, people with disability and those living in outer suburbs and regional Australia to have the ability to access these fulfilling careers.”

“Your background shouldn’t stop you from dreaming big in tech.”

New careers for those that need them most

The decision to make VWE easily accessible to young people – whether at home or in schools around Australia – reflects growing recognition that ICT industry recruitment needs to be more inclusive if there is any hope of meeting the widely-held workforce target of 1.2 million tech workers by 2030.

The launch comes on the heels of this month’s release of the government’s Pathway to Diversity in STEM final report and Science and Technology Australia’s STEM Career Pathway report, which flagged the need for urgent action to expand Australia’s STEM workforce and resolve barriers including gender imbalances, unstable and insecure work, and long hours.

Among the reports’ recommendations were a call for better coordination between university and vocational sectors, improved access to work-based placements, enhancements to current Women in STEM programs, and establishment of similar programs for “other cohorts underrepresented in STEM education and jobs”.

Improving diversity and inclusion were “strongly emphasised” in the report “as an integral step to meet growing demand for a STEM skilled workforce,” TCA acting CEO Ryan Black said as the report was released, “but we know that not enough Australians from diverse backgrounds are working in these great jobs.”

Recent government analysis found that just 3.2 per cent of First Nations people are underrepresented in the professional, scientific and technical services sector – compared with 8 per cent of non-indigenous Australians – while just 39 per cent of 15- to 24-year-olds with disability are employed, compared to 63.5 per cent of those without disability.

Such gaps represent a significant untapped workforce that could potentially benefit fields such as cyber security – which has seen a strong response to standalone programs such as Cyber Audit Team’s newly launched Cyber Skills Enrichment Program (CSEP), a 12-week intensive and paid internship program that will run several times this year.

“Previously, the feedback I received from cyber security recruiters was that I didn’t demonstrate the required industry experience,” CSEP graduate Didi Fletcher said.

“Now, through the program, I’ve gained invaluable real-world, hands-on experience, and I can confidently say, I now have the knowledge and experience that was originally holding me back.”