Opinion: reskilling and rebuilding the workforce with apprenticeships

By Andrew Walsh

Monday August 31, 2020

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COVID-19 has delivered a global economic shock that was unimaginable just a few months ago. For many businesses, this has presented the challenge of managing remote workforces at scale for the first time. But entire industries including aviation, hospitality, retail, travel and tourism have been hit much harder, with social distancing restrictions drastically reducing demand or forcing them to stop trading entirely.

The ABC has estimated that 780,000 people lost their jobs in the first week of April, based on Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data. More recent ABS data indicates that, after an initial period of recovery, Australia’s national job recovery has hit a stumbling block amid Victoria’s second wave. In August, the Reserve Bank of Australia forecasted an unemployment rate of 10% by December and a GDP contraction of 6%, the largest fall since the Great Depression. These are difficult times.

A crisis of this magnitude will continue to bring significant change. It already looks likely that many aspects of our personal and professional lives will be permanently altered by the pandemic. Although still too early to say with any certainty how this will play out, it’s safe to expect an acceleration of digital trends as governments and businesses look for zero-touch ways of providing services. The online shopping habits many people have developed in isolation are also here to stay and more people will spend more time working remotely than they did before we all went into lockdown.

These changes will have impacts across the economy from commercial and residential property to transport and infrastructure, but the most important task we face is reskilling large sections of our workforce for this increasingly digital world. We’ll need more people designing and building those zero-touch services. We’ll need more people with data analysis and user experience skills to help rethink retail and other industries. And most people will need new technology skills to make them more productive while working remotely.

For the many Australians who have lost their jobs over the past few months, the unwelcome shock means many will be faced with considering whether their current skills or industry remains viable. If they’re considering a new career, demand for technology skills is higher than ever. We know that young people have been hit hardest by COVID-19 from an employment perspective, with ABS data showing that 9.9% of Australians under the age of 20 lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. This group would also find it easiest to make a career change having only just entered the workforce.

But age need not be a barrier for others interested in making the switch. And while most people expect that you need a computer science or similar degree to get into the tech industry, our experience tells us something different. Iress has taken on 20 people through a UK apprenticeship scheme with 17 still with the business who are learning on the job just as effectively as university graduates.

We want to use this approach and our experience to reskill Australians into technology roles and help get the economy back on track. We’re calling on other technology companies to join us in launching apprenticeships. Given the scale and speed of rising unemployment, and strong demand for technology skills, this would be a much faster and easier way of reskilling large sections of the workforce who don’t want to go to university or college and may not be able to afford that option.

But industry requires government support to standardise the scheme and manage the ecosystem of training providers that supports it. The Australian scheme should also be available to older workers rather than just school leavers. It could also be used to break the minimum-wage perceptions historically associated with apprenticeships.

So, what does it take to make the switch? An interest in technology is a given but this could just as easily be an interest outside of professional life – building a website to support a hobby, tinkering with old radios or supercharging a home computer to play games. It might just mean reading tech websites and blogs or subscribing to newsletters and podcasts.

The right soft skills are also important. This industry needs more good communicators and collaborators who can relate to people at all levels of an organisation. It rewards analytical thinkers with a practical mindset. And a passion for achieving outcomes is crucial.

The past couple of months have been difficult and there are more challenges ahead. But there’s a real opportunity for the tech industry to move quickly in reskilling large sections of the Australian population with government support.

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