Preaching to the choir

ICT is a diverse, energetic, demanding, rewarding career option and more people need to know that

It’s been seven years since Computerworld’s special issue on the Knowledge-Based Economy and a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then.

At the time, the newly elected Labour party was keen to be seen to act on the issues at hand. An inquiry into the telecommunications industry was launched; the government set about revamping the way it spent its money and looked at electronic purchasing as the way of the future. Electronic crimes were finally introduced onto the statute books making it illegal to hack into a computer system. And the government launched its Knowledge Wave conference that has lead to so many promises on technology spending. such as Project Probe, HiGrowth and the Digital Strategy.

Finally we’re getting the basic infrastructure we need in place. New Zealand finally has a good shot at doing more than exporting offal (see David Skilling’s comments in E-tales this week). Forget about manufacturing — we can’t compete with South East Asia for either volume or price. We’re simply too far away from our markets to ship anything heavy any distance. Instead, let’s ship things that have little intrinsic weight but which the customers are willing to pay handsomely for. Software, movies, services. Digital content of any kind.

However, we face an even bigger problem. Something that is just as damaging and potentially just as costly to solve. People. We simply aren’t producing enough ICT professionals to meet our needs.

In researching this story I was stunned to hear the same message over and over from any number of different players. Students aren’t interested in taking up ICT as a career. They see no value in it, they see no future in it. Resistance from teachers and from parents is high.

Students see ICT as a means to do something else but associate a degree in ICT with “sitting in cubicles watching rows of figures on a spreadsheet” or worse, a life filled with colleagues who resemble the characters in those idiotic Xtra TV commercials. That’s a bit like not wanting to go into medicine in case you end up working at Shortland Street, but I can well understand where the kids are coming from.

What they don’t see is the tremendous opportunities that an ICT future can offer, not just for the country as a whole but for them as individuals. Travel. High paying work. A chance to really make a difference in the world. Today’s ICT professionals are nothing like Xtra’s nerds. In 1999 I visited what was then Compaq’s application development centre in Christchurch. There I met my first bona fide hacker, in the truest sense of the word. She was a grandmother, wore twin-set and pearls, if memory serves me, and knitted the entire time we spoke. She was able to spot potential Y2K problems on her screen at a glance.

On that trip I also saw the centre’s carpark. There were more four-wheel drive vehicles with weekend toys on the back there than at the average Coromandel beach in January. Jet skis, catamarans, mountain bikes, kayaks. Not for these hackers their parents’ basements and a cold pizza.

But you all know this already. I’m preaching to the choir. It’s not you I need to convince, it’s them out there. The students, the teachers, the parents. Garth Biggs from HiGrowth told me about a surgeon who was deeply unimpressed that his son was going into ICT. Within four years he’d changed his mind — his son’s salary was on a par with his own.

We need to get these stories out there. ICT is a diverse, energetic, demanding, rewarding career option and more people need to know that. We need more than 60,000 professionals in the industry by the end of the decade: currently we have fewer than half that number and interest in ICT is waning. If we act now we’re still facing three years of shortages. If we don’t act now, the industry as we know it may never recover.

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