Access Economics is to release a report showing, oh what a surprise, that “the demand for workers with ICT skills will boom over coming years. However, the number of students enrolled in information technology courses remains significantly below that of the early 2000s.” But what’s interesting about this particular link in the conga-line of similar reports is that it attributes the shortage to the sector suffering an “image problem” that could be hampering its ability to attract high achievers.
Television programs such as The IT Crowd – whose main characters are socially inept computer technicians working in a dingy basement – portray the sector negatively while other professions such as law, finance and medicine are usually glorified in popular culture, the report says.
“This could be contributing to the industry’s image problem among younger generations in particular,” says the report, Australia’s Digital Pulse, commissioned by the Australian Computer Society.
Seriously? That’s the conclusion? A generation brought up on the idea the rivers of gold are available after some basic coding (see Zuckerberg, Mojang, Gates, et al), that Steve Jobs is cooler than many rockstars, and that Google and the IT industry generally have the best working conditions in the world are all trumped by a few episodes of the IT Crowd?
Let’s try some other ideas on for size:
- Australia is a country that positively discourages intellectual pursuits generally and which seems to have taken a particular bent against maths and science.
- Many of today’s ‘high achieving’ students are from recent immigrant families who want their children to pursue traditionally high-prestige professions to escape Australia’s deeply ingrained racism.
- The existing high school curriculum to encourage an interest in IT is basically non-existent. The new curriculum is a boring compromise produced by a committee and there are a vanishingly small number of teachers with the qualifications and experience to make it engaging.
- The resources that are required to change any of that have become a political football being kicked about between disinterested and ill-educated politicians more interested in scoring points than seriously achieving an outcome. And the football they are kicking is, even if it scored, completely inadequate to the task – $25 million to retrain the teacher cohort, really?
Ultimately, the problem here is deep and systemic and is really not susceptible to being fixed by banning The IT Crowd (or, and can’t you just see this coming, a government advertising campaign saying IT is cool). In a better world we would be encouraging students to study hard subjects, we would be recognising teachers, we would be funding science, we would be discouraging a relentless drive for marks at the expense of education. But these are hard decisions and there is no political will for hard decisions these days; at least beyond the hard-man posturing that passes for a refugee policy.
And at the end of the day I would argue that the real problem we face in the IT sector (and in maths and science) is only tangentially about image. Sure, changing perceptions will help, especially in encouraging girls into these areas. But the real problem is that these are hard subjects which take work and as long as we encourage students to go down easier routes and don’t ensure the teaching resources are available to make these subjects engaging and pertinent, nothing will change.
Or perhaps the one thing that will change is that the image attached to programmer, scientist or mathematician will be ‘someone other than Australian’ as we’re forced to import the skills we need to function and thrive in the 21st Century.