Australian companies should be budgeting to pay much more for IT staff or face being left behind in the global e-commerce race.
Local experts warn a haemorrhaging of expertise to overseas markets threatens to plunge the local skills shortage to crisis levels.
Lance Kaplan, partner of international visa services at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, said the average take-home pay being offered by Australian IT start-ups was less than half that which skilled staff could earn in the US. IT professionals lured to the US could expect a base salary of $US100,000 compared to a base salary of $A100,000 here in Australia, he said.
"We have to acknowledge that cost differential. As difficult as it is from an IT perspective or from an employer's perspective, if we want to attract the cream of the crop we have to be able to compete on an economic level," Kaplan said.
Deloitte has also warned Australia will lose an increased number of IT workers over the next year, as US Congress considers proposals to ease restrictions on migration.
The warning coincides with claims that Australia's greatest challenge in the next decade of e-commerce will be to overcome the mounting skills shortage epidemic, which has already seen a surge in overseas outsourcing.
This was the most articulated concern raised at the recent NOIE (National Office for the Information Economy) "E-commerce beyond 2000" seminar.
According to Professor Peter Dixon, director of the Monash Centre of Policy Studies, who spoke at the seminar, Australia has established itself as "very good at identifying the demand but not very good at supplying" satisfactorily skilled IT staff.
Representatives from high-profile IT&T companies and recruitment agencies admitted they were unable to fill most technology-oriented positions with Australians because overseas-trained staff were better qualified for the job. Even then it was difficult to attract overseas technology-savvy staff to work in Australia because similar positions earned higher salaries overseas, they said.
However, Kerry Barwise, managing partner for the Allen Consulting Group, who also spoke at the seminar, stressed that the soaring IT skills shortage was not a government concern because education was "up to the individual".
Australia is believed to be facing a shortfall of at least 30,000 IT staff, projected to rise to 100,000 or even higher within a couple of years. Much of that unfilled demand continues to be in areas like Windows NT, telecommunications and of course e-commerce. There's also a continuing and desperate need for IT professionals with business nous.
But while John Roberts, research director for Gartner Group, pointed out that the battle for skills will continue for the next 20 to 30 years, he said being able to attract sufficient IT&T staff could conceivably add another per cent or even two to economic growth.