When people think about great technology companies they often focus on the product – the piece of hardware, the app, or the software that the company makes. But companies of all stripes rely very heavily on their people – and technology companies are no different.
Australia excels in producing high calibre professionals across a broad range of industries. Our engineers, lawyers, managers and accountants have an international reputation for excellence and integrity, and that reputation helps us attract a huge number of overseas students each year.
Education is our fourth biggest export, eclipsed only by iron ore, coal and natural gas, and added more than $17 billion to the Australian economy in 2014-15.
There’s no reason why Australia can’t lead the world in tech talent too. We have all the makings of an international magnet for the best technology students and workers: a top-tier lifestyle, driven by having some the world’s most liveable cities, a fast-growing commercial technology sector, privileged access to some of the world’s biggest markets, and a world-class education system.
And we’re on the right track already.
Our excellent federal R&D Tax Incentive Scheme encourages big companies like Google and Atlassian to keep substantial engineering teams in Australia even when most of their customers are elsewhere. And governments around the country are re-gearing school curricula to focus on core technology skills and digital literacy.
In its 2015 Global Startup Ecosystem Report, research group Compass advised entrepreneurs to “set up a second office focused on engineering in an ecosystem with a lot of inexpensive and plentiful tech talent, such as Austin, Tel Aviv, or Sydney”.
So Australia is in the conversation when it comes to technology and innovation talent, but our demand is growing fast, and we aren’t yet the world leader on tech talent that we need to become. To get there, we need to start producing more world-class STEM graduates, and we need to encourage gifted kids to consider joining a startup as a legitimate career path.
Worryingly, a recent report by global IT consultancy firm, Infosys, found just 4% of Australian STEM students and workers had an interest in working for a startup.
We also need to make it even easier for top technology talent to move to Australia. That means continuing to reform our visa process so that the best and brightest can choose to make Australia home. But it also means thinking creatively about how we make it affordable for overseas workers to live in our big cities. Our cost of living is high, and if you’re not Australian it’s even higher – skilled migration visa holders are not entitled to Medicare or free access to the public education system.
This is not a pipe-dream. Australia has a real opportunity to become a hotbed for the skills that will be most in demand in the decades to come. We can build a world-leading technology workforce.
If we succeed in doing so we will vastly improve our chances of creating a globally competitive technology ecosystem and safeguarding our future prosperity.
Alex McCauley is head of strategy and advocacy at StartupAUS. StartupAUS is Australia’s leading organisation promoting technology entrepreneurialism. Find Alex on Twitter at @atmccauley.