IT skills shortage starts in school

The IT skills shortage we face now looks set to get worse, and it all starts in our schools.

Statistics from the NSW board of studies show the number of students completing IT subjects at HSC level has dropped steadily for the last three years.

In 2003, a total 22,910 students in NSW completed IT subjects which include information technology, industrial technology and information processes and technology. This dropped to 18,268 students by 2004 and 15,668 in 2005.

One thing that has remained consistent is the small number of girls electing to study IT at HSC level - with 3804 selecting it in 2002, and 3642 choosing it in 2005.

On the flip side, business studies subjects have become increasingly popular. Only 5048 students chose business subjects in 2002, but that grew to 20,082 last year. Business subjects also boast a better balance between the genders (8956 girls and 10,012 boys chose business subjects in 2005).

A spokesperson from the Board of Studies said the board is unable to comment on social trends.

However, Australian Computer Society president, Philip Argy, said the situation looked grim.

"The education system is not keeping pace with where the world is going, and it's that gap that is responsible for what we are seeing. And it's worse because the growth in the need for IT skills has levelled out, and even started to increase, but the lead time before people see that, start enrolling in courses and graduate, is five to seven years," he said.

"In the interim, it's easy to see what is going to happen. There will be massive skills shortages and there will be a massive pressure on the government to boost immigration to lift these skills sets, but then it deprives local graduates of even more jobs."

There's something intuitively odd about our natural history of being an innovative populous along with the fact that we have slump in IT enrolments, Argy said. He feels it may be largely because parents and career advisers haven't let go of the dotcom bust idea of IT.

"That is blinkered view, without the understanding that IT can be in your toaster, your washing machine, your car, a boat, a plane or a submarine. It pervades marketing. All marketing people can talk about these days is their CRM systems or their data mining systems, so IT training equips you to be a better marketing person, IT training equips you to be a better car mechanic, to build a better toaster. People really need to realize how pervasive IT is and not to think of it in narrow terms any more," he said.

In addition to attitudes of parents and career advisers, Argy said the curriculum and teaching methods in schools was also an issue.

"Anecdotal evidence shows that 80 percent of kids in IT subjects in high school know more than the teacher. That's hardly motivating. Imagine if 80 percent of the kids in maths or science thought the teacher was an idiot," he said.

"Historically, the bureaucrats just get the woodwork, metal work or science teacher to teach IT, rather than bring someone new in that has a technology background. These people are not trained to teach IT," he said.

Argy said that while IT as a subject needs to be taught by people with technology skills and experience, IT also needs to become a more integral part of the education system generally.

"Here, you can see a big divide between public and private schools. Many private schools will mandate that every kid has a laptop. Now I'm not suggesting public schools could do that, but there are a lot of research skills that could be taught via technology now, in every subject."

Kids should be actively encouraged to go online, and keep a trail record of the sites they visit and what leads them from one point to another, Argy said.

"So in the process of learning about the elephants of India - you've actually also learnt online research techniques," he said.

The continued shortage of females studying IT is also a concern to Argy.

The ACS has developed a group, called ACSW, to develop programs for both high school and primary school that evangelize IT as a legitimate and desirable career option for young women.

A spokesperson for the NSW Department of Education said it is not easy to comment on the effectiveness of teacher training because there are different pathways people use become high school teachers.

She said that any teacher that has graduated in the last few years should be IT-literate enough to encourage students to use technology for online research and word processing, which may not be the case for teachers that graduated some time ago.

It is up to the individual school to choose its teachers, up to the individual teacher how they teach the curriculum, and up to the individual university in how they incorporate IT into teacher training, she said.

"In order to be approved to teach in NSW public schools by the Department of Education and Training however, teachers need to pass a certain degree of IT literacy, but we don't place that as high in importance as numeracy or language skills and literacy," she said

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