Last year was certainly a good year for Australian IT job hunters, with reports of 'skills shortages' peppering headlines across the country. Sadly for recruiters, the situation will not change much in 2007, according to this month's Biannual Labour Market Update from APESMA (Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers, Australia).
APESMA has reported declines of up to 50 percent in first year tertiary IT enrolments. To make matters worse, the organisation found that almost two thirds of the country's precious few graduate scientists and engineers intend to seek better wages and conditions overseas.
From an international perspective, only 0.4 percent of Australian university students currently graduate with mathematical qualifications, compared with an OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) average of 1.0 percent.
Without a healthy supply of highly trained scientists and engineers, Australia runs the risk of being unable to meet existing demands, and the demands of major resource and infrastructure projects in the near future, warns Geoff Fary, Acting CEO of APESMA.
"In short, our economy will become increasingly uncompetitive," he said, highlighting a nationwide shortfall to the order of 20,000 engineers expected in the next few years.
Fary blamed the fall in demand for science courses on a failure to attract secondary students to mathematics and science, and the pedestrian image that is often held by secondary students of the technology-based professions.
Potential students tend also to be deterred from IT degrees due to outdated fears about the job market, speculates Bill Wilson, Acting Head of the University of New South Wales' school of Computer Science and Engineering.
"There were short-term employment problems immediately after the "tech-wreck" a few years ago," he said. "However, our current graduates seem to be doing well at getting jobs - and our graduates' starting salaries are rising."
Salaries may be rising, but the cost of undertaking University studies could still outweigh the long-term benefits of an IT degree in potential students' minds. Under the current HECS (Higher Education Contribution) scheme, a science degree attracts the second highest band of fees, costing just $1,200 less than Medicine and Law, and over 40 percent dearer than an Arts degree. Science students now pay $7,118 per year, compared with the $3,000 per year paid by students in 1996.
"Its [HECS fees] growth in recent years has been unchecked and it is pricing many students, particularly those from less advantaged backgrounds, out of tertiary studies," Fary said.
Wilson agrees, saying that HECS fees should ideally reflect the cost of training, which are "very high" for medicine, and "in-between" for science, ICT and engineering. Taken from that perspective, the pricing scheme currently in place does not seem fair, he said.
"The government seems to be charging HECS at whatever rate it thinks the market will bear - that might make sense for international students, but seems unfair for local students," Wilson said.
In a televised interview with ABC earlier this month, Federal Minister for Education, Science and Training, Julie Bishop, outlined a plan to invest $52 billion in science in the next half decade in an effort to boost the country's perception of scientists and their contribution to society.
While she denied that current HECS fees are a deterrent for potential tertiary students, declaring the current scheme "one of the fairest systems in the world", Bishop did promise a review of the HECS banding of science in relation to other courses.
With the federal election looming later this year, however, newspaper reports are sceptical about whether science and education programs will make it into the government's tightening budget.
And so the skills shortage continues, to the woe of IT recruiters. But it's not all bad news for the IT industry. In the struggle to fill IT vacancies, employers are now offering benefits such as increased annual leave, retention payments, part-time and work from home contracts, and overseas exchange.
IT professionals now net in an average salary of $85,610, with increases of up to 5 percent in the private sector, and 3.8 percent in the public sector, according to APESMA.