With the New Zealand ICT industry apparently back on a growth path, the country is headed for a crippling shortage of graduate and postgraduate input to the workforce, warn academics responding to the government's Draft Digital Strategy.
“First year enrolments in computer science are at [low] levels last seen 15 years ago,” says a submission signed by senior academic staff from universities nationwide. It fingers the dot-com bust and the post-Y2K dip for a negative perception of the industry among students.
“When the ICT bubble burst in late 2000 the bottom dropped out of the ICT job market,” says the document. “This caused many of the best New Zealand secondary school students to select other career paths, in accounting, law, etc.”
The pessimism of the slump is still being felt among students, says signatory Professor Bob Hodgson, director of Massey University’s school of engineering and technology. At the same time, the reality of the industry’s resurgent growth is shown in increasing numbers of job opportunities.
The most recent Department of Labour Job Vacancy Monitor reports: “The IT job market is strengthening considerably, with the IT Vacancy Index having increased by 44% to 165 in the 12 months to July 2004.
“Overall growth has been particularly impressive since the beginning of 2004 with the index rising by 70% between January and July 2004, compared with 15% in the same period of 2003."
This means a major gap between supply and demand for ICT graduates stretching out for at least another five years, Hodgson says. Research in ICT also gives cause for concern, the academics say. To meet the government’s vision of ICT as an engine of the New Zealand economy, we should be fostering innovation through sharing of ideas among organisations. The sharing of the tacit knowledge concentrated in a particular geographical area results in a cross-fertilisation of ideas that creates an innovative culture.
“There is a general agreement that in order to develop such cross-fertilisation more effort needs to be put into promoting inter-organisational flows of information and knowledge. Research activity involving multiple institutions and open to the public is an ideal mechanism for fostering such flows.”
The current approach, by contrast, is to encourage “industry-led” research, and NZ’s ICT industry does not have the critical mass for that to work well, the response says.
“The ICT industry in New Zealand is simply too small and immature to support, much less lead, significant research and development. There is a need to develop more of a research and development culture within the industry. This can be accomplished by producing more MSc and PhD graduates who go into industry," say the academics.
Even if we are to settle into a role as a “close follower” of the international state of the art, research will still be needed to adapt overseas innovations to New Zealand’s particular environment, they say.
"The current New Zealand ICT research community is small when compared to many of the traditional disciplines in New Zealand. The [government’s Performance-Based Research Funding] report counted 202 active researchers in the ICT category. This compares well with the number of university based researchers in other sciences; however very little ICT research is done outside the university sector.”
The tertiary education sector response calls on the government to:
- Create programmes for pure and applied research in ICT that do not require industry leadership, or even significant industry participation at the start of a project.
- Encourage regional and national research consortia to leverage strengths that are distributed throughout the country.
- Increase funds for ICT R&D to increase in the number of ICT researchers.