Written by 7:00 pm EU Investment

Tech leaders set the scene for new era at jobs summit

“The jobs summit comes at a critical juncture for the Australian economy as it faces major challenges around productivity growth, high inflation, declines in real-wages and major skills shortages,” Ms Denholm told The Australian Financial Review.

SafetyCulture’s Luke Anear says Australia needs to change its image as a business location. Jason Smith

“Getting more Australians into tech jobs is one of the most impactful levers available to meet the goals of the jobs summit. This includes lifting productivity and wages without creating inflationary pressures, increasing job security, addressing the gender pay gap and improving employment outcomes for disadvantaged Australians.”

Mr Husic has signed up to a shared commitment with the Tech Council to create 1.2 million tech jobs in Australia by 2030, but there are concerns across the sector about a mismatch between the spiralling demand for skills across both tech companies and non-tech companies with digital transformation plans.

Ms Denholm said she would use her seat, as one of 100 attendees invited to attend the summit, to advocate for shared action by industry and government to streamline skilled migration, introduce a new modern digital apprenticeship model, and to come up with ways to support more women to reskill into tech jobs.

“Australia also has an enormous opportunity to become a global technology leader, with the best and brightest minds working towards solving some of the most complex problems of our time,” she said.

Mr Anear, whose company cracked a $2 billion valuation at its last funding round, said his attendance at the summit on his first day back at work after an extended break, showed his view that it was an important moment for the tech industry.

Mina Radhakrishnan, co-founder of Different says it needs to be made much easier for senior tech talent from overseas to move to Australia. James Brickwood

Learn from Europe

He has just spent significant time in Europe and said it had opened his eyes to some illogical ways Australia positions itself on the global business stage.

He said Australia gives the impression that it is very difficult to be able to come and work here, and needed to bring in more skilled and unskilled workers.

“Brand Australia today is based on dangerous animals, border security and Bondi Rescue. We need to promote Australia as a country of choice for workers and employers,” Mr Anear said.

“We need to incentivise companies to come to Australia. Employment laws are complex for foreign companies, so we must simplify our legislation. Australia is an expensive country by world standards, so we need to reduce the barriers for entry.”

Among policy ideas on Mr Anear’s mind are the need to pay teachers better to keep great educators teaching, incentives for young adults to undertake extracurricular learning and experiences to better prepare them for the workforce and new ways of making Australia a desirable location for global companies.

He said he admired how Croatia has grown since it joined the EU in 2013. He said Australia should take note of how freedom of movement for employment across EU countries inspired economic growth.

“The government needs to innovate and could consider offering a tax-free year for foreigners to relocate,” Mr Anear said.

“And they could develop policies that incentivise innovation with tax breaks for export revenue milestones for companies.

“It’s a good exercise to think about how Australia can break down its geographical borders to make it easy for people to work and travel here. Why do we make it so hard? Citizens from the US and Canada should be able to come and work here as easily as someone moving through the EU can.”

Think different

The co-founder of property management technology start-up :Different, Mina Radhakrishnan, said her attendance of the jobs summit at the start of next month will be the first time she has ever had a reason to go to Canberra.

President of the Australian Academy of Science, Professor Chennupati Jagadish says PhD students need to be able to earn enough money to live in Australia. 

The impeccably credentialed start-up founder, who moved to Australia five years ago via a spouse visa after having senior product manager roles at both Google and Uber, said it has to become easier for others like her to bring their skills to Australia without marrying one of the locals.

“I think it shows real initiative and leadership to create the summit and bring all these people together to really address some of the big things that are on our mind with regards to jobs and the tech sector. So I’m very much looking forward to being there,” Ms Radhakrishnan said.

“Australia’s tech sector is growing, but still nascent, and when you’re in that phase, I think you really want to bring people together to create the foundation you want, so you can try and avoid things like systemic inequalities and gender pay gaps that we have already seen happen in other parts of the world.

“I have been involved in growing big companies internationally, and the thing every company needs to grow, is the right people and the skills shortage here is very real.”

Ms Radhakrishnan said the focus on easing skilled migration bureaucracy was not a call to flood the local market with international workers, but rather a reference to a notable shortage of people with senior level experience in building technology businesses locally.

“Brand Australia today is based on dangerous animals, border security and Bondi Rescue.”

Luke Anear, SafetyCulture.

She said that, had she had to go through the huge documents to apply to come to Australia through non-marital means, and run the gauntlet of an often illogical scheme that ranks the importance of certain job roles to the country, then it could easily have been just too much effort to bother.

“One of the things that becomes more important as your company increases in scale is having leaders who understand the things that can go wrong before they go wrong, because they’ve seen it before … but in Australia, that experience often isn’t there,” Ms Radhakrishnan said.

“I want to be able to create jobs in Australia, and create pathways for local people, but in order to be able to do that I need to have people who have the leadership experience so that they can train and grow those people.

“So for me, one of the biggest things is fixing skilled migration for really high scale, high paid jobs, like product management … And just make the visa application process quicker, because at the moment it is just too hard.”

Summit outcomes

When it comes to solid outcomes from the upcoming summit, Mr Husic has made it clear that he views the tech and science aspect of proceedings to be just the start of an ongoing conversation and process about how to improve things for a sector that had languished in government thinking under the last Coalition government.

The Australian Financial Review understands that one aim of the summit is to produce a compact or statement of intent, agreed to by the various interests represented – ranging from industry to unions and academia – which will act as a guiding principle for future policy direction.

Ms Radhakrishnan said it was a good idea to have such an agreement to hold the government to in future, and ensure that the summit did not end up being a well-intentioned talkfest.

“If I compare this to running my business, then we have almost 200 people in the company now, and we have to try and align all those people to a shared goal, so I can be confident people are working on the right thing if I’m not in the room,” she said.

“So if I think about the jobs summit like that then it seems a good idea to be trying to set a shared goal, so that we know what we are trying to accomplish.”

Science growth

While he is not attending the summit itself, the president of the Australian Academy of Science, Chennupati Jagadish participated in one of Mr Husic’s pre-summit roundtables last week – focused on science and commercialisation – and said it had been a “terrific” session, with a real sense that progress could be made.

Among the 27 others at the roundtable attended by Professor Jagadish were Australia’s chief scientist Cathy Foley, CEO of Science and Technology Australia Misha Schubert, Australia’s chief defence scientist Tanya Monro, and the CEO of deep tech accelerator Cicada Innovations Sally-Ann Williams.

“I think there’s a strong understanding that science can assist the Australian Government to create jobs, boost productivity and protect Australia’s strategic interest,” Professor Jagadish said.

“I shared with the minister that Australia’s productivity and prosperity is being held back by our lack of utilisation of science, and the government and the minister understands that, and he said he wants to change the narrative in terms of the importance of science, and the role it can play in the future of our country and its economic and social well-being.”

Areas of particular concern to the scientific community, according to Professor Jagadish, are the relative lack of investment in research and development in Australia, the low remuneration to researchers and PhD students and the insecure career prospects for those conducting important research.

Google’s Melanie Silva said last week’s roundtables were a constructive start to making changes to education and training policies. Dominic Lorrimer

R&D investment in Australia has fallen over the past decade from 2.25 per cent of GDP to just 1.79 per cent, placing the country well below other countries with similar socio-economic profiles, and at 20th in OECD rankings.

Professor Jagadish said the new government’s commitment to raise this investment to 3 per cent of GDP gave cause for much-needed optimism, after a period where scientific funding had been depressed for a decade.

He said the upcoming focus on attracting people with skills to operate in Australia was necessary in a sector where young scientists in Australia were working on areas of great national importance, yet struggling to afford groceries due to insufficient scholarships.

“The younger generation of scientists are really frustrated that they don’t see hope in the future, but now at least the government is working towards creating those opportunities,” he said.

“But there is a lot of work that needs to be done, despite this good beginning. It is a good sign that the minister has indicated that he wants to engage with the sector on a regular basis.”

Microsoft Australia boss Steven Worrall says reliable accreditation of tech skills is needed. Peter Braig

Long term, Professor Jagadish said Australia still had to find a way to get more people, particularly women, to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics-based disciplines.

Other local tech industry leaders that the Financial Review spoke to, who had attended last week’s pre-summit roundtables, included Google Australia and New Zealand boss Melanie Silva, and Microsoft Australia managing director Steven Worrall.. Neither will be attending the summit in person, but said their views would be represented by the Tech Council.

Recently appointed managing director of the Australian Information Industry Association Simon Bush, also attended the digital and skills roundtable and led the opening challenges presentation on behalf of the sector.

Others who attended the roundtable included Business Council of Australia CEO Jennifer Westacott; Envato CEO Hichame Assi; Salesforce ANZ CEO Pip Marlow; MYOB CEO Greg Ellis; and LinkedIn’s ANZ boss Matt Tindale.

Mr Bush told the meeting that 330,000 additional tech workers are needed in Australia by 2027 (or 66,000 more each year) and that there were three areas where these new workers would come from.

They were an increased education pipeline, skilled migration increases and programs to reskill other workers to take on tech roles.

The AIIA has proposed changing rules governing the 485 temporary graduate visa, which allows international students to stay and work in Australia after their studies. Mr Bush said this takes a minimum of nine months to process, and can only be applied for once a course has finished – leaving students in limbo.

The AIIA proposes that students should be allowed to apply to stay during the final year of their course, and that the age cap of 45 for tech visas should be removed.

“The digital and tech skills roundtable was a constructive start to what will be an important set of questions to address at the upcoming jobs and skills Summit,” Ms Silva said.

“It’s clear that there are key goals we’re closely aligned on, particularly around building the right infrastructure to support the digital and tech skills needed – for our economy now and for a strong digital future.

“It’s important that government and industry work together to help find and provide real-world solutions to upskill Australians, given the nature of work continues to shift so rapidly.”

Mr Worrall, meanwhile, said there was a lot of focus on building a pipeline of entry level tech workers, at the roundtable, but that Microsoft also wanted to make sure there is an equal focus on the importance of experienced tech talent to building the tech ecosystem.

“In terms of outcomes from the jobs and skills summit, I’d like to see a national approach to skills definition and accreditation so that Australian businesses can be confident that when they hire talent with certifications that they are employing people with the skills they need to run their business,” he said.

“The other key priority is the broad acknowledgment that this is a great opportunity for us to focus on diversity within the tech sector – ensuring under-represented groups are encouraged to join the industry.”

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