The AWPA has published the results of its investigations in two parts: the 169 page study and a four page ‘’Key Messages’ document, in which it says: “The reality is that domestic supply of ICT skills has not kept pace with demand. While recent enrolment trends in both higher education and vocational education and training (VET) are encouraging, there are high drop-out rates from courses and some who do complete are experiencing difficulty finding work in ICT occupations.”
The way that statement is written suggests that one problem - graduates finding it hard to get work - is the consequence of the other - supply not keeping pace with demand. On the face of it that, of course is nonsense. The real key message is that the graduates of IT courses in academic institutions are coming out with skills and knowledge that are not appropriate or sufficient to meet employers’ requirements.
And rather than come out with a definitive position on the inappropriate nature of IT courses, the ‘Key Messages’ says merely that employers are “complaining that tertiary graduates do not possess the desired combination of technical and complementary business and communication skills to contribute effectively in the workplace.”
The simple fact is that academia is ill-equipped to produce work-ready graduates for today’s IT workplace. The tools they use and the skills they need are evolving far too rapidly for academia to keep up. In my recent column on MOOCs (massive, open online courses) I quoted one employer, Peter James of Ninefold, saying that many of the software developers he hired were self-taught and did not have computer science degrees.
This state of affairs begs the question of whether academia should be producing job-ready IT graduates. Are employers being unrealistic in the level of expertise they expect from newly graduated employees? In fact, if you take the trouble to delve into the study proper this issue is explored at some length and AWPA acknowledges that it is unreasonable to expect academia to produce fully job-ready ICT graduates.
It notes that most degree-level ICT programs offer extensive professional experience to students but that even students who have undertaken extensive, well-supported professional experience face a steep learning curve in the early part of their careers.
“The rapidly changing nature of ICT skills requirements means that university curriculums may not always equip graduates with the very latest skill sets, and the highly specific, client-focused nature of contemporary ICT enterprises means that many graduates will take some time to adjust to the workforce.”
And AWPA notes. “In other professions - medicine, engineering, architecture or law, for example - there is no expectation that students are 100% ‘work ready’ on graduation. In these professions there is an expectation of ‘graduate traineeship’ for a period of one to two years.
So, what to make of the promises made to students who enrol in university IT courses? Take this one, chosen at random, the Bachelor of Computer Science and Technology degree course offered by Sydney University. It promises to produce graduates who are “IT specialists and possess an excellent combination of knowledge and practical, hands-on expertise to influence and reinforce an organisation’s technology infrastructure and to support the people who use it,” and who will “often be responsible for selecting and deploying software products appropriate for an organisation.” That sounds like an awful lot of responsibility for a new employee who, no matter what IT skills they possess, is likely to know very little about the business of their employer.
In contrast, the promised outcomes from Swinburne University of Technology seem more realistic. Its Bachelor of Engineering (Electronics and Computer Systems) degree course list six objectives that “are the typical skills and abilities that Swinburne graduates will have a few years after graduation as they develop their professional engineer careers.” Graduates of its Bachelor of Computer Science course “are usually employed in technical areas such as programming and systems analysis and design, internet systems development,” and are “well-prepared for progression into project leadership and management positions as their experience develops.”
The recommendation coming out of the study is that the Australian Computer Society and the Australian Information Industry Association introduce a one-year professional experience program for entry-level ICT professionals.” Amazingly it says: “This experience is already available to international students seeking employment in Australia, and could be extended to domestic students.”
For ‘could’ read ‘should’, and ask why it is not already available.