Dr Joe Sweeney from IBRS on Why Diversity is the Smart Approach to the Skills Shortage in the IT Industry

Robyn Foyster Robyn Foyster has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team
on 20 September 2023

Dr Joe Sweeney From IBRS talks about the IT Industry skills shortage, unconscious bias and AI in 2023. He talked at the Tech Summit in the Hunter Valley, Australia.

You can watch the video and read the transcript below.

Hi, I’m Dr. Joe Sweeney with the advisory firm IBRS. My doctorate is in education, policy, and technology, the intersection of those things. When we’re talking about the skill shortage in the IT industry, I think it’s really, really important to understand what we mean by that. Because it often ends up being a discussion, “we need to teach kids to code”, or “we need to get more people into programming”. Quite frankly, that was never going to be the case.

What’s really the issue is AI is going to take over a good segment of that. What we need to teach people is what’s called constructivism, thinking in a logical construct, in a logical way, so that they can use technology however they need to. And that’s a far deeper issue. But that doesn’t solve the huge shortages we’ve got in the industry. We can either try and push more people through university, but we can’t keep up with that. What I have been seeing recently is a lot of vendors creating courseware and programs that they’re working with higher education and vocational training centres to bring a lot more people to their products so that, of course, they can sell more. There’s an interest there. But also just to grow the overall capacity within the industry.

The really smart vendors are focusing on diversity. And it’s not just diversity for diversity’s sake, I know this can get into the realm of politics, but what we do know is that when you’ve got people with common skills, with lots of different backgrounds, that’s when you get really good innovation. So that’s why the vendors who are really smart at this are doing a good job.

One of the challenges though is that the organisations, the vendors, they’re tech companies, they don’t necessarily understand the nuances of education, both adult education or quite often they’re also targeting people who are just coming out of high school and just really starting their internships or their college and so forth. They don’t always understand what’s needed and because they’re talking about diversity, they’re also wanting to target people from diverse backgrounds which includes people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. The best programs I’ve seen from the likes of HCL and UiPath and so forth, Microsoft, they do specifically target people from disadvantaged backgrounds and that’s wonderful.

HCL, global tech giant’s Women Lead Australia initiative proudly first launched in Australia
Women Love Tech Editor Robyn Foyster joins Global tech giant HCL’s Women Lead Australia initiative event in Melbourne in 2020

We have an absolutely critical, weird disconnect with women in IT, and I know that’s something that you’ll be interested in, but also neurodiversity, people from social disadvantage, socioeconomics, definitely Native Australians, and so forth. But when you start working with those people, with people from these backgrounds where they’re already undergoing huge life stressors, and a vendor comes along to them and says, hey, we’re going to pay for you to do these courses, and you’re going to get four years worth of employment and internship, and it will be paid, this is life-changing stuff, and that’s good.

But the people coming from these backgrounds also have, they have to work extra hard because there might be health issues, there could be family issues, there are all sorts of other issues that people who don’t come from those backgrounds don’t face, so they have to work double hard. This means when it comes time to do things like assessments and so forth, their stress levels are just insurmountable. And unfortunately, tech vendors aren’t good at understanding that that’s really in the realm of education, so one of the things I’d like to see is a lot more research and a lot more thought about how we have a real pathway for people from diverse backgrounds, specific people from disadvantaged backgrounds, through this. Because if you can get them into the marketplace if you can get them work, this is a huge improvement to the social contract that people have. In other words, more tax. But also, you’ve genuinely changed lives and in many cases entire communities.

What Are The Issues At Stake With Unconscious Bias And AI?

Dr Joe Sweeney from IBRS talks about unconscious bias and AI at the recent Tech Summit in the Hunter Valley

I personally think unconscious bias is one of the biggest issues facing us, not just in AI, but in society at large. One of the things that happens if you are serious about addressing productivity, addressing true resilience in a culture as a whole, you need to address this issue of all the things that we don’t know about our culture because we live in it. It’s the fish swimming in the water.

One of the big areas I’ve seen with regard to AI and unconscious bias is actually in some of these hiring systems. And there are a few companies that have been dealing with this for many years where they actually go in and they look at an organisation and they figure out what the organisation wants and what makes a high-performing employee in different groups. And then they normalise it and they look for the bias and they start to pick it out. No surprises, you know definitely in the tech industry women are disadvantaged in the hiring process. Unless you actually take measures to normalise that bias. And there’s a whole range of other issues.

What I came across recently was a young man about 23 years old. He was at a tech conference, so I went up and had a chat with him and he was looking for a job. He had a Master’s in cyber security, but he’s on the spectrum, which means he interviews oddly to our cultural bias. So I’m going to make that very clear: interviews oddly to our cultural bias. So he’s been trying to find a job. Companies are screaming out for people just like him, hyper-focused, who absolutely will do anything to get that job. And he can’t get it because he can’t get past the HR department.

Now these are really, really big tangible issues. We’re not going to address true equity in society, but that is also tied to productivity and it’s tied to, again, the broader national contract that we have. So I really do hope that we use this explosion of interest in AI because when you’re building an AI model you have to address bias. It sticks out. It really does. And then you have to make conscious decisions about how to remove that unconscious bias which is now made conscious.

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