The ICT industry will be one of Australia’s most critical sources of employment and employment growth potential over the next decade. It is a significant enabler of innovation and productivity and a consistent driver of economic growth and job creation across multiple industries and emerging areas. Professionals Australia has over the long-term called for Government investment in building digital workforce capacity and skills and noted our concern at the lack of a clear plan for technology skills development in the key emerging areas of cybersecurity, AI, machine learning and cloud computing. In our STEM work, we highlight the challenges for our education system in preparing and training students with the skills needed to meet the demands of today’s world and the need for support and incentives for retraining and reskilling existing technology workers because of the accelerating pace of digitalisation in the workplace.
In our 2021-22 Pre-Budget Submission and our advocacy work, Professionals Australia argued for:
- a workforce development plan for ICT to support technology adoption and in turn economic growth and productivity gains – Australia has a shrinking core ICT labour force with a lack of permanent work and job security, increasing use of labour hire and independent contractors, widespread underpayments and under-award pay, offshoring of IT functions and widespread sham contracting
- a clear plan for technology skills development in the key emerging areas of AI, cybersecurity, machine learning and cloud computing
- measures to address the growing digital divide while ensuring privacy, resilience, and security of digital networks and devices
- a more strategic approach to technology adoption as a means of driving economic returns and economic development
- support for the expansion of Australia’s video-gaming industry
Initiatives announced in Budget
The Treasurer announced a $1.2 billion digital economy strategy in the Budget. The initiatives include:
- $200.1 million to upgrade myGov, the main portal for accessing Government services
- $301.8 million to expand the My Health Record system (managed by the Australian Digital Health Agency)
- $124.1 million on an AI package with $53 million on a National Artificial Intelligence Centre in Melbourne to be run by the CSIRO’s Data61 with a network of AI and digital capability centres, and the remaining funds going towards pilot programs for AI-based business solutions, the creation of an AI graduate program, and grants toward regional AI development
- $100 million to boost digital skills including $10.7 million on a pilot program for work-based digital skills cadetships, $24.7 million for the Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Graduates Program, $22.6 million for the Next Generation Emerging Technology Graduates Program and $43.8 million for the expension of the Cybersecurity skills partnership innovation fund
- a digital games tax offset of 30% to support gaming startups and help grow the Australian video-gaming industry
- $206.4 million patent box which will provide tax incentives for commercialising and manufacturing patented Australian medical and biotechnology in Australia. The new measures include changing tax rules to encourage the use of employee share schemes. The ATO will also provide a concierge or personal assistance service to fast-track tax advice to foreign investors. Individual tax residency rules will also be simplified
- changes to how businesses can claim depreciation on intellectual property and in-house software including the ability to depreciate software, patents, designs, and copyrights more quickly
- help for small businesses to build digital capacity including $12.7 million for the “Digital Solutions” Australian small business advisory services program to provide independent advice to small businesses on building their digital capacities and $15.3 million to enhance the value of electronic invoicing for small businesses
- $113 billion on Consumer Data Right rollout, $40.2 million to deliver the Digital Atlas of Australia and $16.5 million for a pilot program to make the Australian Government’s data assets discoverable improving the management of government data
- $31.7 million to work with business and industry on researching and developing 5G and 6G technologies
- $16.4 million for the Peri-Urban Mobile program to improve mobile phone connectivity in bushfire-print areas
- the development of a National Data Security Action Plan to strengthen the security of Australian Government data and the data of individuals and businesses
- the establishment of a Government Cyber Hubs program to improve the cybersecurity of Government agencies
The Government has also set out a National Emerging Aviation Technology Policy Statement to set a framework for managing new aviation technologies and a framework for a Drone Rule Management System for the use of recreational and commercial drone operators. They also announced the development of the National Drone Detection Network to detect drones for security and cybersecurity purposes and $32.6 million for the Emerging Aviation Technology Partnerships program to support the use of technology to address needs in regional Australia.
IT Professionals Australia’s response
Professionals Australia welcomes the measures announced in the Budget even if the scale of the investment is in many ways not proportionate to the scale of investment needed to make Australia a leader in the uptake and development of digital technologies. Given the critical role digital tech has as a driver of innovation and improved productivity in virtually every Australian industry, the Budget initiatives are a good start but further support is needed.
We see the investment in skilling the future Australian IT workforce as critical. We need a more strategic approach to technology adoption as a means of driving economic returns and economic development – and we need a plan for workforce development – including reskilling of and continuing professional development for existing IT professionals – to support this aim.
The investment in digital skills development in the form of cadetships, scholarships and cybersecurity skills is welcome but we note the need to ensure cadetships and graduate programs lead to ongoing permanent employment not just skills for initial jobs.
The 30% digital games tax offset for the video-gaming industry is welcomed as an incentive for potential investors in local studios. The Interactive Games and Entertainment Association forecasting potential generate a $1 billion games industry in Australia within a decade, up from $144 million in 2018-19. There is however a level of disappointment at the scale of investment with some suggesting that tax breaks are only a fraction of the investment needed to properly support the sector and take a larger share of the $250 billion global game development market. We need to ensure fair pay and conditions for those in existing gaming studios and those set up by investors taking advantage of the tax offset.
AI is projected to add US$15 trillion to the global economy and boost enterprise profitability by an average of 38 per cent by 2035. By mid-2020, 60 countries had established a national AI strategy (including Australia) but the AI skills crisis is recognised as the biggest barrier for wider AI adoption. The investment in AI makes a start in addressing what is an obvious gap but the scale of assistance is regarded by many industry commentators as falling well short of what would be required to make Australia a leader in AI capabilities and uptake.
The patent box initiative is widely regarded as a positive measure but with eligibility limited to medical and biotechnology, the scope is limited and an opportunity to extend it to other ICT areas in the future.
We welcome the Women in STEM scholarships but note the need to address the wide range of factors that contribute to women leaving the tech sector with only 29 per cent of the IT workforce female and a gender pay gap in the IT sector of 20.6 per cent.
We also note the need to address some of the more serious employment issues that affect the tech workforce. These include sham contracts, poor pay levels for staff contracted to undertake less complex IT functions, the Australian Public Service staffing cap that works to undermine a strong in-house IT capability, what are often unfair contracts offered to IT workers on a take-it-or-leave-it basis as well as problems with shifting to new IT specialisations, problems with getting proper recognition when working for a global company based off-shore, the lack of links between skill acquisition and career paths and under-Award payments.