Australia needs to change its mindset to compete in the industries of the future

Allow Australia to participate fully in the global data and AI revolution, or risk becoming an ‘also ran’.

Late last week, the AFR announced that Quantium took out two awards in its Top 100 Graduate Employers 2018 Awards, run in conjunction with GradConnection.

One of the reasons we have invested so much in our graduate program is that the war for talent in data science, applied analytics and AI has never been fiercer.

As part of a small group of pioneers developing a globally competitive tech business headquartered in Australia, our key growth constraint is access to talent. The 100 graduates and interns we have hired this year are part of the story, but the truth, no matter how many local graduates we take on, is that we cannot source all we need from Australia.

And that’s why the government needs to take action to set Australia’s tech firms up for success. There is a simple choice here: allow us to compete for the world’s best talent, and thereby allow Australia to participate fully in the global data and AI revolution, or risk becoming an ‘also ran’.

When we bring in exceptional data scientists from overseas, we increase our global competitiveness and we bring home more business to Australia. At the same time, we grow the skills of our Australian people, including our graduates who primarily want to work with Quantium because they know they are learning from the very best.

When we employ talented people on 457 visas, and 11% of our people meet that profile, we actually increase our ability to take on more aspiring Australian data scientists. It’s simply a misnomer to suggest that every job created for an overseas expert comes at the expense of a local. That would be the case if there was a ready supply of experienced data scientists in Australia, but there is no such thing. We need people to lead our teams as well as smart young Australians to develop.

Last week Atlassian co-founder Scott Farquar called for a two-tier visa system, split between domestic jobs and those exposed to export markets, as a way of ensuring fast-growing Australian companies like ours can access the talent they need. That is certainly an option worth exploring but I feel we also need a national change in mindset.

Our immigration and industrial relations policies were designed for a different age and can often be an impediment to Australia becoming a global leader in data science and AI. This should concern all of us given the scale of disruption that’s just around the corner.

It is not inevitable that Australia should see all its good ideas transported to Silicon Valley before they have had an impact locally. Estonia’s famously open approach has enabled it to become one of the world’s leading centres of innovation and it has enjoyed some notable successes, including Skype, and it is well placed to play a significant role in the industries of the future.

On the other hand, countries with a mindset geared to protecting past successes are most ripe for disruption. Unsustainably high labour costs and a lack of workforce flexibility will merely serve to accelerate the pace of digital disruption – they make the business case for automation even more compelling. Combine this with limited access to the skills required to compete in the emerging economy and you have a recipe for decline.

I don’t buy into the notion that Australia will forever be a digital backwater. We are well educated and naturally entrepreneurial and we offer a very safe and attractive place for knowledge workers to live. We can become an innovative knowledge economy, but we desperately need to reset our visa program to set our local innovators up for success.

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