Borders closed. Can Australia’s IT hiring bounce back?

While the Australian government proposes needed skilled-immigration reforms, hiring skilled immigrant workers virtually and reskilling Australians could more quickly address the IT labour shortage.

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The coronavirus pandemic and the accelerated digital transformation in Australia together have put increased pressure on local talent as the border closure has prevented the country from hiring enough overseas talent.

“This [acceleration of digital transformation] has led to huge demand for tech skills in areas such as software development and cybersecurity,” Robert Beckley, regional director of recruiting agency Hays Technology, told Computerworld Australia. While the increased skill shortage has highlighted the importance of redeploying and reskilling existing staff, Beckley said, the ability to attract talent from overseas is an important part of the puzzle in ensuring organisations can access the skills they need.

Even with the borders closed, there yet may be options for IT and remote workers from across the world to perform those needed functions from wherever they are, as well as plans being made to make immigration more effective once the pandemic subsides.

Long-term: 18 recommendations for improving skilled migration

On 9 August 2021, the Joint Standing Committee on Migration presented the final report for its inquiry into Australia’s skilled migration program. It provided 18 recommendations, including the development of a national workforce plan and the replacement of the ANZSCO, the Australia New Zealand Skilled Classification of Occupations.

The recommendations focused on having a national workforce plan, a simplified migration process based on current skill needs but also with permanent residency to migrants, and fewer fees for those employing skilled migrants on a regular basis.

While some of the recommendations focus on facilitating the process of acquiring a visa, others have more immediate impact on how to help Australia deal with a growing skill shortage.

The first recommendation is that the Australian federal government develop a dynamic national workforce plan that would coordinate the efforts of state and federal governments to ensure Australia’s skills shortages and future workforce needs are addressed through higher education and vocational education systems, employment services, and the skilled migration program. Swinburne University of Technology argued that skilled migration plays an important role in filling immediate workforce gaps while Australians are being trained through the vocational education and university system.

The skills deemed needed when it comes to providing visas and sponsorships are usually part of a list, of which before 2 September 2020 were three: the Short-term Skilled Occupations List (STSOL), the Medium and Long-term Strategic Skills List (MLTSSL), and the Regional Occupation List (ROL). In September 2020, the Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List (PMSOL) was added to those three skilled occupation lists, to cover “occupations that are considered to be critical for the recovery of the Australian economy”. The PMSOL has been update a few times and has 44 occupations, with five of those being ICT-related: analyst programmer, developer programmer, software engineer, software and applications programmer, and ICT security specialist.

The issue is that all four lists are underpinned by the Australian and New Zealand Statistical Classification of Occupations (ANZSCO) codes, which was not designed for this purpose. Its last major review occurred in 2006, and there was a small review in 2013 which “resulted in some small changes”, the committee’s report said.

All of that is why the committee is recommending a new occupation or skills identification system for the skilled migration program to replace ANZSCO. “The new system should be more flexible to adapt to emerging labour market needs, with consideration given to how the new system would integrate with other functions of government currently utilising the ANZSCO.”

Other recommendations around the skills lists are that the Australian government merge the short-, medium- and long-term lists into one list, and that lists are reviewed regularly.

On the visa side of things, there were several recommendations, including providing a pathway to permanent residency for temporary migrants and review of the migrant income threshold.

Near-term solutions could be a remote immigrant workforce and reskilling of Australians

But immigration reform is for the longer term. What about today? What countries have learned with COVID-19 is that there are a lot of jobs that can be done remotely and that the physical office is likely to become less and less popular while working from home may become the norm—that is, a hybrid workplace.

Gartner VP research and advisory analyst Aaron McEwan noted that to perform many IT functions a worker rarely needs to be in the same physical space as their colleagues, so perhaps there is another way to look at skilled immigration: virtually.

McEwan told Computerworld Australia that the IT industry has likely the highest projected rates of remote or hybrid work of any industry. “Most technology work, the kind that we need—artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, all of those digital capabilities—can be pretty much delivered virtually, which means that they can be done anywhere in the world. Now, there are risks to that. But those risks can be managed, and we found that even from a collaboration perspective, which is the bit that people worried and worried about, can be overcome, and we can actually collaborate more effectively.”

This doesn’t mean there is no need for a reform in the current migration system, he said, as this reform covers many other areas and jobs that need to be done in person, such as the work of nurses. But the virtual immigrant may be an option for the IT sector while the world deals with the effects of COVID-19 and the issues of border closures.

When it comes to work where collaboration and sharing knowledge in teams is key, McEwan said that technology workers are the least likely to be working in an office in five years’ time. A big plus of this approach would be ensuring a more diverse workforce which, in the case of artificial intelligence or machine learning, for example, could result in less biased software being developed.

But nothing comes with a 100% chance of success, and taking the remote workforce as the sole approach could also mean losing talent to other nations that have their borders open or that offer the opportunity to move to their countries, McEwan said. Still, he added, this is a manageable issue.

Skilled immigration—whether in-person or virtual—is not the only solution to the talent gap, nor should it be. There has also been a big movement on reskilling Australia’s workforce to fill some of the IT skill needs. Those efforts are getting a boost now that talent is sorely lacking and the borders have closed, ending the ability to use immigrant workers instead of longer-term local training. Many local workers now have a better chance to get access to that training and to have the opportunity to change jobs and be promoted if they wish to.

One example of that shift to reskilling existing local talent in Australia involves machine learning efforts. As Computerworld Australia previously reported, companies building machine learning models are bringing experienced devops and data specialists from different teams within an organisation to work on machine-learning projects rather than hiring new staff.

Overall, there has been increased movement to upskill Australians, with the New South Wales government recently reporting IT as one of the most popular areas for those taking advantage of the federal government’s JobTrainer program.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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