Both parties laud past but ignore jobs future

Listening to and reading last week’s federal budget, I was reminded of a quote from former US secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright. Speaking at #DisinfoWeek in 2017, Albright noted that:

Citizens are speaking to their governments using 21st century technologies, governments are listening on 20th century technology and providing 19th century solutions.

In particular, what brought this to mind was the $525 million skills package presented by the government as part of the budget. Don’t get me wrong: I’m ecstatic that the government is talking about skills, and putting real money behind developing Australia’s skills base.

The problem is that Canberra is focused on the skills of yesterday and not tomorrow.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg spoke of apprenticeships. He talked about “bakers, bricklayers, carpenters and plumbers”. Technology skills were barely mentioned. Most of the allotted budget is going to the VET sector, with the largest allocation, a little over $200m, going to support new apprenticeships. The only time technology comes even close to being mentioned is in the allocation of “$62.4m over four years from 2019-20 to expand second-chance learning in language, literacy, numeracy and digital skills to upskill at-risk workers”, and a $20.1m investment in “emerging skills”.

While I liked Labor’s visions calling for bolder, bigger ideas, it took a slightly similar approach in its budget reply — the difference in policy seemed to be the size of the budget, with Labor promising to deliver $330m for apprenticeships.

That is the critical oversight in both the government’s and Labor’s plans. The jobs of tomorrow are technology jobs. Not just trades and physical labour. During last year’s government inquiry into the future of work, Atlassian CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes noted that “every company is going to be a software company” and he’s right.

This focus on trades is short-term thinking at best, a way to get untrained young people into jobs now, but offering no long-term solutions. What was needed was a plan to get Australians better qualified for the industries of the next century, and it needed to go hand-in-hand with a vigorous plan to encourage the uptake of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) subjects in primary and secondary school. Australia has been falling behind in STEAM, with scores declining since 2006. The Morrison government has pledged $3.4m over four years to get more females into STEM, but $850,000 a year is hardly going to move the needle.

Even in the short term, the government’s approach does not add up. ACS Australia’s Digital Pulse 2018 report revealed that over the next five years Australia will need 100,000 new technology workers just to keep up with demand.

Even the government’s five-year projections point to a future workforce in dire need of technology professionals.

According to the Department of Jobs and Small Business, the ICT professions are projected to experience 16 per cent jobs growth in the next five years. Technicians and trade workers are projected to grow 5.5 per cent in that same period.

And that’s just from 2018 to 2023. When you look out to a longer time frame, the training of more Australians in technology skills becomes even more critical.

A recent report from McKinsey called Australia’s Automation Opportunity highlights the issue. Looking out to 2030, McKinsey expects a drop of 11 per cent in the total number of hours spent on physical and manual tasks thanks to AI and automation. The total number of hours spent on technological jobs will increase by 66 per cent.

That’s why we should be upskilling for the jobs of the 21st century, not jobs that are going to be declining as we head into the next century.

Yohan Ramasundara is president of the Australian Computer Society.

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