Wake-up! Our tech industry is in crisis

wake-up-callWith all the talk about innovation and start-ups you could be forgiven for thinking that Australia was booming and that the last 12 months had miraculously seen us transition from an economy based on mining to one based on technology and smarts. It isn’t and if you need a clearer wake-up call, listen to some recent words from people actually in the Australian technology sector.

Matt Barrie, CEO of Freelancer

“If there’s one thing we need to do to fix this industry, it’s to get more people into it,” chief executive of the online services company Freelancer Matt Barrie told the Knowledge Nation summit in Sydney.

He said the number of students studying IT had fallen by somewhere between 40 per cent and 60 per cent in the last decade, with the number of women enrolling in technology degrees also dropping dramatically.

To change it requires a real change in education…

“Instead of lumping a couple of horrendous subjects around technology in with woodwork and home economics — yes there’s a bit of change coming — but I think it’s mostly lip service.”

And we’re not even attracting people from overseas in the numbers we need to make up for the lack of local skills:  “it’s not just about being paid well, it’s that it’s a backwater — they have to move once to get over there but … more importantly when they finish they have to move back and it’s just too hard for them to get back into the action”.

CSIRO Chairman David Thodey says the core of the problem is that the nation’s culture does not involve enough continuous learning. “I’m not sure we have a culture in Australia where we love to learn and we encourage people to always learn,” Mr Thodey said. While there’s certainly some current irony in the CSIRO Chair touting learning for learning’s sake, he has a real point. But how on earth do you change a whole deep-seated culture in any reasonable time-frame?

We need to make changes to the way we teach and encourage STEM education and we need to do it now, not in a couple of years. We need to look for the low-hanging fruit, like making maths compulsory, and then we need to hit the higher fruit as a priority. If countries like Estonia can find the will and the resources to teach every child to code, there’s no real excuse for us not being able to do it now.

I would say that this ought to be an election issue – not least because the mantra ‘jobs and growth’ simply cannot be disentangled from the flow of smart, modernly-educated people. Where will all the small businesses, that the Government is trying to encourage to hire workers, come from? Even Australia can only sustain a finite number of coffee shops. But I know it wont be mentioned in more than passing in the election. Oh, we’ll hear the rhetoric about what’s being achieved and how we’re transitioning, and how we’re a smart nation. But where will we see the plans and the action to make any of it real? We need to wake up and deal with this now.

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