The challenges of hiring software engineers in Australia

Bartek Marnane, Local Measure

Marc Andreessen, a well-known entrepreneur and venture capitalist, opined in a 2011 essay that the economical and technological shift to a software-based economy was part of a broader trend of delivering products and services online.

Australian companies are finding they have an ever increasing reliance on software, and are joining the difficult search for skilled software engineers capable of fostering this transition.

The Department of Employment projections from 2014 to 2019 forecast 14,600 new roles in the information and communications technology (ICT) industry for software and applications programmers and that growth in these roles was at a higher rate than the industry average in recent years.

This projected growth isn’t being fulfilled by the combination of immigration and graduation. Net migration of software and applications programmers has remained steady since 2012-2013 at around 5,000 per year under both the General Skilled Migration (GSM) and 457 long term temporary business visa programs, while domestic university graduates completing Information Technology courses are also steady at 5,000, around half of the number from 2002.

We are seeing the challenges first hand. Recruiting for software engineering roles is difficult, with few available skilled candidates – a sentiment echoed by other start-ups. Of the candidates that do apply for mid to senior level software engineer roles, the majority fail a coding challenge we give them, taken from a high school textbook, which tests basic problem understanding and data structure.

Alarmingly, we also find university graduates are ill-prepared for work in our industry. Few have been taught practical software development processes and tools, nor how to develop on real world technologies with the software languages in use throughout the industry today.

The emphasis from universities on algorithms and theories isn’t meeting industry expectations of graduates that can architect, build and scale real world applications.

The difficulty in attracting local ICT talent along with improved communication tools designed to better manage dispersed software teams, has impacted our recruiting strategies to consider a larger reliance on remote workers.

In our industry, this has historically meant finding workers in low cost countries that would work on mundane or repetitive tasks – bugs, maintenance, and low risk projects, but now companies such as ours are augmenting their local teams with highly motivated and skilled engineers from around the globe that can work as peers with our existing engineers.

The benefits for us are that we can provide service and support around the clock; increase our output with around the clock development; and more importantly, have access to a global talent pool which helps us scale faster than if we were just relying on local staff, however this is obviously detrimental to the Australian economy.

In response to the local ICT skills shortage, both the State and Federal governments have exhibited a new found love of technology. Australia’s new digital technologies curriculum ensures that computer coding will be taught in primary schools and Malcolm Turnbull’s innovation statement allocated $1 billion over multiple initiatives aimed to promote innovation and a start-up culture, including research funding, focus on education, and tax incentives for investments in start-ups.

While these initiatives seek to ensure Australia’s future technology capability, there is little that resolves the pressing issue to attract new technology talent to Australian businesses now.

The reality for many businesses, especially those in Australia’s fledgling start-up community, is that access to skilled ICT labour directly influences the pace that a company can innovate.

Software projects take time and people, and lack of talent is a handbrake in the global race to unlock the next revolutionary product or service. The many years of government inaction on the need to build local ICT skills, or easily import them, is a risk to these businesses’ competiveness, and the inevitable conclusion is that ideas and work will head overseas to more accommodating jurisdictions.

Australian companies will increasingly look overseas for skilled ICT workers, to our collective detriment. Our future competitiveness will rely on being an attractive place both for start-ups to take seed and grow as well as for engineering talent to live.

Bartek Marnane is VP Technology at Local Measure.

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