Plugging skills gap is key to public sector's mass digital potential

Dell Technologies

By Katrina Lawrence, Vice President, Public Sector, Dell Technologies Australia and New Zealand
Wednesday, 02 November, 2022

Plugging skills gap is key to public sector's mass digital potential

In 2022, digital transformation is no longer just a choice; it’s a necessity. From the outset, the pandemic demonstrated that technology is paramount to the resilience of the public sector and the wider economy. However, the reality is that the public sector is trailing behind the private sector for tech adoption and skills globally.

In Australia, businesses and organisations of all types are feeling the impact of the IT skills shortage, and it’s a race to secure employees from the limited pool of talent. IT professionals can afford to shop around and name their price, but with less flexibility in terms of pay policies, onboarding, rewards and benefits — the public sector is struggling to compete.

While the Australian Government has promising digital plans for agencies and organisations, plugging the skills gap must come first to realise the public sector’s mass digital potential. To bridge the gap, we need to master public-private collaboration and encourage shared expertise and continuous learning.

Ideas and initiatives face skills roadblock

Australia doesn’t suffer from a lack of digital transformation ideas and initiatives; the government understands the digital economy is key to securing our economic future and recovery from COVID-19.

The Digital Economy Strategy aims to deliver a modern, digital economy to drive Australia’s future prosperity and resilience. It seeks to lift Australia into a top 10 digital economy and society by 2030. In terms of e-government, the Australian Digital Government Strategy (DGS) plans to deliver a digital government that meets and exceeds the expectations of Australians, with a vision to be one of the top three digital governments in the world by 2025.

Despite being ranked fifth out of 193 countries for e-governance, according to the United Nations, Australia slipped to 20 in the IMD World Digital Competitiveness Ranking (WDCR) in 2021, with key weaknesses being business agility along with digital skills and training. If Australia were to lift its digital competitiveness, the government could leverage digitisation and new technologies to provide new job opportunities, improve services and find solutions to challenges like decarbonisation and climate change.

As identified in Australia’s digital competitiveness slip, in today’s world, whether it’s finding solutions to climate change, refreshing the healthcare system or an infrastructure upgrade for government departments, technology investment is only the first step. Without the requisite skills (notably cybersecurity, cloud computing and software development) to implement, sustain and innovate, these initiatives lose much of their value.

Currently, it’s difficult to find this level of expertise. According to Australia’s Digital Pulse Report 2022, between 2019 and 2022, job advertisements for technology sector occupations rose by 66%. The report estimates that by 2027, Australia will need over 1.2 million IT workers to keep pace with the rapid transformation of businesses. Critically, it also notes that along with this increase in technology, workers will be the growth in Australia’s broader digital workforce who regularly use technology as part of their job, forecasting that demand for this broader category of digital workers will increase by 489,856 workers between 2021 and 2027.

Prior to the election earlier this year, Australian technology investors, company founders and industry groups urged greater investment in solutions and incentives to address the country’s skills shortage and foster industry growth. In response, the Australian Government announced a $1.1 billion technology investment boost to its Digital Economy Strategy launched last year in the federal Budget. Additionally, it recently announced support for a Digital and Tech Skills compact between the government, unions and technology employers.

The investment in digital skills is promising, as our societal rebuild is heavily predicated on technology and our ability to master it. However, while private sector companies across the globe continue to prioritise the adoption of digital solutions, there are concerns that, for all its efforts and ambitious objectives, the public sector is in danger of falling behind.

Bridging the gap through collaboration

To address this widening adoption gap and truly realise the full potential of digital transformations, it’s imperative that a whole-hearted, collaborative and cross-sectoral approach is assumed. Private sector companies and governments must work together to ensure that technology and skills are maximised within the public sector, allowing organisations to adopt at speed.

While the government attempts to plug the gap, in the absence of new workers, it’s imperative that current public sector employees are trained to use the technology. Private sector companies that have had more time and experience with the technology can share their expertise to expedite this process.

While this skill transference must be the short-term solution, long-term, it’s vital that the public sector nurtures a culture of learning. Keeping up with the pace of change requires continuous learning and upskilling programs that focus on levelling up the workforce and sharing the capabilities already available.

The pressing question is, where do we find the time for this continuous learning? The key is empowering employees to learn in the flow of work. Once they have received official training on how to use the technology, intuitive learning platforms must be made available. Employees, once they have a base knowledge of how to use the technology, must feel able to ask questions as they take on tasks and get quick responses.

The platforms which enable this already exist — the onus is on public sector organisations to embed them into their working culture and make it second nature for their employees to use them through continuous learning.

Sharing expertise to enable progress

The public sector has the potential to innovate and lead in both the data and digital sphere; by sharing expertise and cultivating a culture of learning, we can catalyse more resilient economies, societies and digital futures. We’ve invested in the technology — now, let’s invest in our people.

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