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ICT gets image conscious

05 Jul 2010

Young people who are drawn to technology have mostly made their minds up about the broad direction of their careers in their senior high school years. So if they are to be sold on an ICT career, it has to be before they get to university.

"The ICT industry needs to have a much greater influence on the school curriculum, and offer teachers much more support. It also needs to be more involved in the VET sector through apprenticeships and traineeships," says Deena Schiff, group managing director of Telstra. Schiff joined a panel of industry speakers last month at a forum, run jointly by the Australian Computer Society Foundation and Sydney University's Faculty of Economics and Business, to discuss strategies to interest young people in careers in technology-enabled business innovation. And all agreed that something had to be done.

ICT higher education enrolments, which boomed in the late 1990s, collapsed by 50 per cent or more with the dotcom bust in 2000 and subsequent recession and a decade later have yet to achieve more than modest recovery (CR, 01.04.08).

It's all the more frustrating because, as the panel emphasised, ICT career prospects are excellent. And, contrary to the industry's image as staffed by deskbound nerds, it offers plenty of variety, stimulation, challenge and social engagement.

Glen Boreham, managing director of IBM Australia, says "the dialogue needs to change": "We talk too much about the technology, but that's only a small part of the picture. The inputs may be technical, but the outputs - be they entertainment, education, the environment, or better, more efficient health care and improved longevity - are definitely societal.

"We need to present our industry through a much broader aperture."

Dan Beecham, chief information officer for Woolworths, agrees the industry has an image problem among young people, particularly women. Industry and education providers need to work together to present a more accurate and compelling picture.

His point was reinforced by the young ICT graduates on the panel. Several said the only reason they studied ICT was because they had been encouraged to by parents who worked in or were connected to the industry. Meghna Dasgupta, who graduated in 2005 and is now a Telstra program manager with responsibility for infrastructure delivery, says her father is an IT academic in India.

She says the company offers young women lots of support.

"They encourage us to take on leadership roles, and support women through a virtual network. There are a fair few women in roles like mine [at Telstra] - although the majority are still men.

"But there's a lot that still needs to be done in getting young people to understand what the industry is really like. For a start, we need more forums like this one." Telstra is certainly at the forefront of moves to enhance workplace gender diversity, being the first Australian recipient, early this year, of the Catalyst Award, an annual international award for initiatives that support and advance women in the workplace.

Schiff says law and medicine, for example, have succeeded in changing their professional culture towards gender diversity.

"Men still dominate the higher echelons, but overall numbers are more or less in balance, and females are now a majority of students. But in ICT and engineering we seem to be going backwards. Women are still below 20 per cent of the workforce, and that proportion has fallen if anything since the dotcom bust.

"Industry has to present itself as more hospitable to women," she says. "We've got to look hard at improving opportunities and career paths for women. Telstra is examining its own practices - we're desperate to attract capable women and we need to find ways to do this."

She says a clue may lie in the pattern of women leaving ICT roles in their 40s and 50s rather than, as is the norm elsewhere, in their 20s and 30s in order to raise a family.

"We need to investigate the reasons for this. It may be that the role doesn't offer them what they're looking for at that stage of life, in which case we need to change. On the other hand, they may be growing into different roles using ICT as the springboard - and if so, this isn't necessarily a bad thing."

Boreham says that about 15 years ago "the technology and business worlds collided".

"We moved from a world of silos to one where multidisciplinary skills rule - and where these skills are integrated, both horizontally and vertically.

"Take fraud detection in the finance industry, for example. It's no longer just the technical issue of putting the right systems in place - where the policy people go the left and the IT people to the right. The people working on this now apply accounting, psychology, IT and criminology skills in a thoroughly multidisciplinary environment."

In this light, says Schiff, ICT should be presented as an enabling discipline, similar to law, that opens up all sorts of other business domains. That, she believes, is the hook that could attract the next cohort of young people into the industry.

The event was organised around the release of a series of videos promoting the industry that were produced jointly by the ACSF and Sydney University.