Why Australia's workforce needs to adapt

Caitriona Staunton, head of recruitment Atlassian. Photo: Supplied.

As the Australian economy transitions and the jobs landscape changes with the end of the mining boom, local business faces two critical challenges – jobs and talent shortages – according to some of the country’s biggest players in tech.

Tara Sinclair, the chief economist at jobs listing site Indeed, outlined how the workforce needs to prepare to adapt at Vivid Ideas yesterday.

But it’s already apparent that cracks are appearing.

“Graduate employment rates are at the lowest levels since the recession of the 1990s,” she said. “These graduates are telling us that when they’re going out and looking for jobs, that they’re unable to find roles that fit the qualifications that they have.”

They end up taking positions outside their training.

“At the same time when we talk with employers they’re saying that they’re finding it really difficult to find applicants with the qualities that they need. Particularly to fill technical roles, such as computer science, engineering, accounting.”

Sinclair says jobs are changing faster than some parts of the economy can adapt.

“The difference between that historical pattern and what we’re seeing today is that it’s happening faster now,” she said

“In Australia, in 1900, 25% of the population worked on farms. But today it’s just 3%,” she said. “That doesn’t mean Australia doesn’t grow things any more, and it’s not that we don’t eat anymore. We have become more efficient at producing agricultural products.”

Rather than seeing this as a negative, Sinclair welcomes the new opportunities and jobs these changes bring.

Economists call this “creative destruction”.

“If we’re unprepared for these changes you end up with both a talent shortage and a job shortage,” she said. “But if we have a prepared workforce, that’s was defines a successful economy.”

The key is “adaptability”.

“We’re looking for a workforce that can adapt their current skills and apply them to new areas. Rather than trying to protect that jobs of the past it’s about preparing the workforce for the jobs of the future,” Sinclair said.

“If we can have people adapting to these new jobs and allowing us to expand the goods and services that we’re creating that’s exactly what will grow our economic pie, and will allow each one of us to have the potential for a larger economic slice.”

Starting from the beginning

Fellow panelist Sally-Ann Williams, engineering community and outreach manager at Google, previously worked in the universities says this all starts with education and changing the conversation disseminated by educators about the typical career journey.

Williams said even students graduating in technical degrees like STEM, are struggling to identify what jobs suit them because they don’t know how to translate the skills they learned at university.

“We still think in disciplinary silos: study engineering, become an engineer,” she said. “But the reality is that there are so many people with law degrees working in advertising, people with physic degrees working in publishing companies. We need to change the conversation away from these disciplinary silos to what skills have you developed during the course of your education and how to they translate across a range on industries.”

Doing that she believes will also assist with the supply and demand challenges currently facing the workforce.

Be a brand ambassador

Robert Wickham, regional VP of innovation & digital transformation at Salesforce says attracting international talent and making Australia an attractive place to come and work is key.

Encouraging Australians to celebrate the successes that already exist is part of that strategy.

“From a business perspective, no one has been recognised as Australian of the year for the past two decades. Once we start celebrating our successful people and businesses we will create role models for our future talent to look up to,” Williams said.

“We are known for our beaches, we are known for Uluru. But yet no one can tell you Wi-Fi was invented here. People don’t know that Google Maps was invented in Australia. We don’t celebrate enough that we have a world class education system here.

“Every primary school student will learn computational thinking and coding in primary school from next year… but most of Australia doesn’t seem to know that. We should be saying to people that we are employing and coming down here, bring your kids because they’re going to get a great education.

“Be brand ambassadors for your country.”

Atlassian’s head of recruitment Caitriona Staunton says Australia needs to work on its brand and showcase the great business and tech culture.

She admitted that while Atlassian is currently on a hiring spree, and Australia has some world-class talent, the volume or range of skill sets the company requires made sourcing talent here a non-viable option.

“We don’t have any choice but to look abroad,” she said.

Wickham agrees.

“We have to make Australia a destination for the so-called ’10xers’ of the world who will supercharge the environment. At the same time we have to figure out how to retrain the existing workforce.. as well as reshaping education system so that we are organically growing the talent pool for the future,” he said.

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