Is Australia finally getting serious about digital skills? Sunday, 10 April 2016

News article written by Corbett Communications. The statements made or opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Engineers Australia.

The incorporation of smart ICT into the design and planning of infrastructure, as well as its construction and management, will require a range of skills developed, the Australian government has admitted. While this is not news to ITEE College members and Engineers Australia, which promotes and supports STEM skills across a number of fronts, the declaration by the government does bode well for the future of software engineers in this country. But with the Internet of Things forecast to explode on the world’s doorstep within five years, Australia appears to have some serious catching up to do.

In a recently released Smart ICT report on the Inquiry into the Role of Smart ICT in the Design and Planning of Infrastructure by the Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities, the federal government’s Department of Communications “acknowledged that ‘greater emphasison STEM skills, and particularly data analysis qualifications, will be an important resource in making use of Smart ICT in infrastructure in future’’.

In Engineers Australia’s submission to the Inquiry, it warned that the demands of smart infrastructure emphasised “the importance of engaging the appropriate engineering, ICT and risk management skills to ensure that inter-connections between infrastructure systems do not present new sources of vulnerability that could lead to system failure”.

Meanwhile in the 2015, Global Innovation Index Australia’s main fails were listed as human capital and research, and knowledge and technology outputs - down two places and eight places from the previous year, respectively. In the top ranking performers in Oceania and South East Asia Australia didn’t even rate a mention.

The Communication Alliance’s recent report, Enabling the Internet of Things for Australia, also noted that one of the inhibitors to Australia harnessing the IoT is a “lack of ICT and data sciences skill”. It recommended weight be added to the drive for “greater science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning programs and develop IoT training programs, with particular emphasis on data engineering”.

The understanding of Building Information Modelling (BIM) technology is also something that needs to be addressed in Australia, according to the Australasian Procurement and Construction Council (APCC): “Fundamentally there is a need for education and training designed to increase the understanding of PTI [Project Team Integration] and BIM technology and processes,” the APCC told the Senate Inquiry.

“The focus for education needs to include the benefits of PTI and the pathways to achieving integration together with BIM awareness, technical skills, knowledge and understanding BIM as a collaborative working tool,” APCC wrote in its submission to the Inquiry. It called for universities and other educators to incorporate consistent BIM education and training into degrees and coursework, with web-based training being an important accessible option.

The Inquiry noted the APCC’s view that the “traditional silos of architecture, engineering and building and construction schools” was not “conducive to the delivery of education and training programs that facilitate a consistent approach to BIM service delivery”.

The National Committee for Information and Communication Sciences (NCICS) of the Australian Academy of Science also told the Standing Committee’s Inquiry that widespread adoption of smart infrastructure will need a supply of STEM skilled professionals, specifically in ICT and its application to infrastructure. However, NCICS is concerned about the growing shortage of ICT professionals in this country and as smarter infrastructure is developed and implemented, the shortfall could increase and hold back the growth of smart infrastructure.

The Committee’s report also noted that the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development said, “’Smart ICT requires a new wave of technical expertise in transport’. While traditional engineering skills would be required ‘increasingly software and computer engineering as well as data analysts will be needed to transition Australia to broader use of Smart ICT’”.

The department asserted that the development of these skills will require “greater cooperation between industry, government and the education sector” while The Australian Technology Network of Universities emphasised to the Inquiry that, “building new capabilities in smart ICT must integrally involve the higher education sector, with training elements forming an importance component of multi-partner initiatives”.

NCICS chair, Prof Rod Tucker echoed Engineers Australia’s views on higher standards of education in STEM subjects in schools, and highlighted the need for “a growing nexus between universities and industry” to promote engagement with new technologies.

“There is quite a lot of scope for the universities to engage with industry and students in university engineering, science, mathematics and computer science courses, but they need to work more closely with industry, perhaps through industry placements and industry-based projects,” Tucker told the inquiry.

The wide range of submissions to the Inquiry included one from The Centre for Disaster Management and Public Safety at University of Melbourne which urged “the provision of training and qualifications required at both vocational and tertiary level to be able to plan, design, implement, operate and maintain broadband infrastructure”.

As a result of the Inquiry, the Senate Committee made 10 recommendations including that the Australian government oversee the formation of a Smart Infrastructure Task Force led by Infrastructure Australia to develop national policies, including the development of industry and product standards, and training and education. It will also be responsible for the development of a national strategy to accelerate the adoption of new technologies and innovation.

The Committee concluded that it was “conscious of the need to develop the requisite skills to take advantage of new technology and practices”.

“The key to this is ensuring that government agencies have the necessary knowledge and skills to effectively engage with the private sector in the development of smart infrastructure,” the Standing Committee stated in its final report.

“Essentially, government agencies must know what to ask for in order to get it. This in turn means engaging with industry effectively to see what it can provide.”