Australia needs more local IT interns (as well as the new visa scheme)

We have to shift our focus from short-term approaches to filling job vacancies and start investing in the next ...
We have to shift our focus from short-term approaches to filling job vacancies and start investing in the next generation of local talent. Supplied by Brett Adam

By 2022 Australia’s IT sector will need to fill an additional 81,000 jobs, according to Australia’s Digital Pulse, a study by Deloitte Access Economics and The Australian Computer Society.

This problem was one catalyst for the government’s decision to announce a new visa scheme to replace last year’s canned 457 visa category, allowing employers to import highly skilled foreign workers from July.

While this is a step in the right direction toward a more relevant and necessary foreign hiring policy, the reality is that visa applications take many months to approve, and this category only applies to high salaried roles. It is simply not enough to address the tech skills gap, and it won’t make much of a dent in our ability to hire good talent at Zendesk.

That fact is, the IT industry’s single greatest problem isn’t our ability to hire foreign talent; it is education and not having enough new talent entering tech. With only 3000 to 4000 IT graduates flowing into the workforce each year, we’re on track to fall well short of our estimated skills needs.

Brett Adam,  ANZ managing director and vice-president engineering at Zendesk: If Australia is to continue to grow ...
Brett Adam, ANZ managing director and vice-president engineering at Zendesk: If Australia is to continue to grow successful technology companies, we need to invest in the next generation and be an active part of the solution. (Darrian Traynor)

According to labour market research conducted by the Australian Department of Employment, only 53 per cent of computer science graduates are able to get a job in the field; the other 47 per cent become disillusioned at the lack of entry-level jobs and take their brains and talent off to do other things.

We have to shift our focus from short-term approaches to filling job vacancies and start investing in the next generation of local talent. Training is one area where significant improvement is needed, and while government and universities have a role to play, we as an industry ultimately hold the master key for hiring who we want to work in our companies. We have the power to recruit and develop talent, and we need to do it better.

We need companies, large and small, willing to hire and train graduates to bridge the gap between study and employment, to offer meaningful, paid internships to students, and to demonstrate more clearly what an incredible future a career in IT can bring. It is up to us to train the next generation, the right way.

Open the doors

The biggest challenge for graduates in any profession is knowing where to start. How do I know what job is right for me? Who will give me a chance to find out? Sadly, too many industries – ours included – make bridging that gap too hard.

At Zendesk, we run an Open Intern Enrolment day inviting anyone to apply for an internship, and last year we held our first Open House event. The event was a chance for graduates and others interested in tech careers to spend time in our offices, see how we work, meet our staff and ask whatever questions they might have about a career in the technology industry.

Inspiration is necessary for effective training. Tech companies have a lot to offer – many are leading the way when it comes to workplace conditions, pay and innovative work with global career potential. We have to start selling this message and inspiring students to set goals and pursue careers in our organisations.

Rethinking the intern

So often I hear of internships being used to access free labour. Earlier this month a recruitment company was found to be charging graduates $1000 each to take unpaid internships at a software company in Melbourne, hiring up to 60 interns a year to work at a separate site from the company’s main headquarters.

It is time we start treating internships as a crucial part of the solution, and how developing young people can benefit the whole company. At Zendesk, we have a comprehensive internship program lasting six, and sometimes 12, months. We also partner with other organisations such as Code Like A Girl to participate in their internship programs. All of them are paid. We recently offered an intern a full-time role as she was so outstanding. We’ll be taking on another seven paid interns in July.

Integrated training

However, it is not just more intern and graduate programs that are needed; it is how they are conducted that makes the real difference, and isolating interns by having them work offsite simply replicates the isolated conditions of academia that internship programs are meant to address.

The host company needs to provide the intern with experience in a real working environment – one that has both challenges and rewards.

 Interns should be engaged in entry-level work, or given a chance to attempt work in parallel with actual staff to benefit from guidance and feedback and experience what a future career might look like – for example, we try to maintain a ratio of one intern to four non-junior staff who are able to provide mentorship.

Meanwhile, interns often bring out fresh viewpoints by encouraging existing staff to explain their processes and deconstructing their decisions in a way that lays bare any unconscious errors or biases. If internships are treated as a core development function of an organisation – rather than a token add-on – the benefits are truly significant across the business.

As an industry, we can continue to bemoan the skills shortage and lack of supply of IT graduates, but the reality is the problem isn’t going to go away. If Australia is to continue to grow successful technology companies, we need to invest in the next generation and be an active part of the solution.

Brett Adam is is ANZ managing director and vice-president engineering at Zendesk.

Courtesy of the Australian Financial Review

Administrators note:

Temporary skill shortage visas are exactly that- short term. Australia needs to re-think its training profile not only in ITC but across the sector- particularly also the core building trades, in order to insulate the country from increasing demands of a growing population and increased infrastructure and ancillary projects Australia wide.