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Victorian government commits $3m to lift ICT and attract technology workers

After spending three years getting its own high-tech house in order, the Victorian government has turned its attention elsewhere, with a $3 million plan to make companies more tech-savvy and get more people working in the technology sector.

Among the funded initiatives are a technology graduate employment program in the public service, practical technology advice for small and medium businesses, career and course awareness activities targeting students and support for technology events targeting women.

The Victorian government wants to encourage more people into technology careers and help businesses employ more IT workers.
The Victorian government wants to encourage more people into technology careers and help businesses employ more IT workers. Photo: David Paul Morris

To be launched on Wednesday evening at the Victorian iAwards, the two-year ICT Workforce Development Plan recognises the sector’s role in ensuring economic prosperity, according to Minister for Technology Gordon Rich-Phillips.

Developed in consultation with the technology industry, it includes initiatives to encourage young and mature-aged workers to pursue careers with high-tech tools and help businesses make the most of their ICT resources.

An "ICT capability framework", currently under development, will be used as a benchmark for government agencies to determine whether their in-house skills are up to scratch.

The competence of public servants regarding technology was flagged as an issue in the government’s ICT strategy – an updated version of which was released last month.

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“One of the commitments we made was to develop the capability of our ICT people in the public service,” Mr Rich-Phillips told IT Pro.

Since taking the helm in 2010, the minister has undertaken a sweeping program of reform designed to attract technology companies to the state and restore credibility to the government’s management of IT projects.

High-profile debacles include the implosion of CenITex, the shared services bureau set up in 2008 to save $40 million a year, which has been the subject of three inquiries, an ombudsman’s investigation and a probe by the fraud squad.

The government’s ICT purchasing arrangements have been overhauled, with the establishment of a new eServices register, while Telstra and Optus will lose their decade-long monopoly on the supply of telecoms to the state in 2015.

However, Mr Rich-Phillips may have an uphill battle selling the notion of a brilliant career in ICT to the Victorian masses.

While industry bodies have long warned of the danger of an impending skills shortage and the resultant need to import more labour from abroad, many workers already in the industry believe their long-term prospects are uncertain.

They say corporate cutbacks and the offshoring of jobs to developing countries have made ICT a precarious career choice, while recruiters have reported lacklustre demand and stagnant salaries in recent years.

Tertiary institutions have struggled to combat falling demand for ICT courses from Australians over the past decade. In 2013 domestic students accounted for just 7913 of the 13,420 undergraduate ICT enrolments around the country.

Gartner research vice-president for the public sector Glenn Archer said he was dismayed by the extent of the enrolment slump, upon learning of it two years ago.

“I was shocked at how there was no bottom appearing ... the depth of the problem was hidden by the number of international students coming to study – it was masking a more serious drop in Australian students,” Mr Archer said.

“It doesn’t bode well for the future of Australia ... Any government that looks to try to move to address this problem is to be commended.”

Freelancer founder Matt Barrie, a long-time agitator for reform to technology curricula in high schools, said initiatives spruiking the benefits of technology careers were typically “abysmal”.

Previous attempts by industry bodies had done little to boost enrolments in hardcore computer science and engineering degrees, and local demand for workers with these skills continued to exceed supply.

“They need to get people in the industry to do it who are working at companies, who understand how to sell that stuff to kids,” Mr Barrie said. “Kids are fascinated by [technology] but they can’t connect the dots.”

Government funds would be better directed to supporting the National Computer Science School, a programming workshop run by University of Sydney academic James Curran, he said.

Mr Rich-Phillips said companies complaining of skills shortages needed to ensure they were doing their bit by offering sufficient entry-level positions.

“There is a role for the industry to play in creating graduate opportunities and developing skills ... there’s always room for improvement in that area,” he said.

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