Transitioning technology consumption and disruptive forces are propelling the channel's perpetual skills shortage to an inflection point which some are calling a skills revolution.
Anything-as-as-Service or XaaS, 'killer apps' and the explosion of data are driving demand for developer and infrastructure skills in mobile, Cloud and virtualisation.
The emergence of analytics is also set to create strong demand for people with the technical knowledge to gain insights from vast amounts of data combined with the entrepreneurial nous to turn those insights into something valuable for business.
By 2018, the adoption of disruptive technologies will redefine 90 per cent of IT roles, according to an IDC report, The Future of Networks. The analyst predicts that by then a third of the top 20 market-share leaders in most industry market segments will have been significantly disrupted by new competitors and/or reinvented incumbents using one or more of what it calls the "four pillars of the Third Platform": Cloud, Big Data and analytics, mobile technologies, and social networks. Much of that disruption will be driven by faster, more agile methods of product and service development.
By 2020, IDC forecasts that more than $5 trillion of global ICT spending will be driven by communities of innovators and entrepreneurs developing new applications for these technologies.
Distribution Central chief executive, Scott Frew, said there was now a massive shortage of skills in the channel, which was being compounded by a lack of young Australian taking up studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
"It started when the dotcom hit and parents started telling their kids not to get into IT," he said. "We still have a hangover from that. The federal budget has also cut funds to support innovation, which is ludicrous and impacts our IT sector. It's not a good message, especially for the young."
Frew said trying to get good developers was almost impossible. "I don't see any oversupply and there are massive shortages everywhere," he said. "Everyone is trying to grab those top graduates and we lose a lot of good developers to the US as well."
Chief scientist of Australia, Ian Chubb, said Australia had clear and growing gaps in its STEM based capabilities, with a third of respondents to a recent Deloitte survey reporting having difficulty recruiting STEM graduates, while 40 per cent had difficulty recruiting STEM qualified technicians. "IBM's [former CEO], John Opel, said you don't win by running fast, you win by running faster than anybody else and he is dead right. There are real challenges here for Australia," he said.
"We need to remember that our competitors are not standing still. Other countries are significantly boosting their investment in STEM including nations that have traditionally focused on low-cost mass production.
"When you look at the research output from China, it's gone up almost exponentially. We can't afford not to change with them or their change will leave us behind."
Inflection point Data#3 managing director, John Grant, said the IT industry had reached an inflection point around the eternal IT skills shortage cycle. "The skills shortage has been around forever and, at Data#3, our experience has been that there's always a shortage of the best skilled people," he said. "However, there's also no doubt that we have got an inflection point and we're positioning for the fact that our market is transitioning.
"The skills we will need tomorrow are different from the skills we have got today. The skills will be much more around the business objectives and much more with the user rather than IT groups."
Grant said from a technical skills point of view the company had made significant investments in Cloud and hybrid IT skills. "It has required us to build a lot more stuff than we would have normally done, from software development, all the way to infrastructure configuration, and integrating products that are not the normal products for us," he said.
"So really good technical people now need to change their skills sets. In the past, they might normally be around Cisco Wi-Fi, for example, but now they need to be into the integration of various products to provide a new solution for customers."
Grant said Data#3 had a hybrid Cloud, where it had taken multiple software products, put those together to provide the whole portal experience, and that the key element was in software development.
"There's no doubt about it, the future is about apps and software that integrates and there's a shortage of skills. We also just bought a share in Discovery Technology, a Wi-Fi analytics company. That's where we see the future."
Grant said there were also shortages in application development and infrastructure integration. "The deal is we all have to learn on the job," he said. "They key is technology and technology consumption are in transition and the skills are different to what they have been. If we understand that then we understand what we need to take to our customers, then we will understand what the skills are to support that and we will find ways of delivering them."
According to IDC, more than 80 per cent of "killer apps" on the Third Platform will be data-intensive by 2018, often harnessing real-time information from social networks.
It also forecasts Australia's Big Data market will grow to be worth more than $530m by 2017. The resultant growth in data traffic means IT managers will require new modes of securing and managing additional bandwidth to maintain the performance of business critical applications. "Enterprises will continue to have to throw additional bandwidth at their networks, as well as to add intelligence to these networks - to be able to handle traffic flows, complex application and quality-of-service requirements and to ensure applications align with and are responsive to future business needs," according to the report.
Dimension Data Learning Services chief executive, Mal Shaw, said the "skills revolution" was all about anything-as-a-service (XaaS). "In the old days we went out and installed the servers and software at the client and then provided support and maintenance," he said.
"Then many channel partners hosted the servers and software and provided a managed service. Today, end users have the choice of any number of incredibly powerful Cloud-based systems and software to meet their needs.
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"The key thing to remember is that the end user still has the same risks they always had. Unless they are an IT company, they may not know which providers to choose and how to make them work together."
He said the end user still needed help in understanding their requirements, setting IT strategy, selecting providers, creating and managing service agreements, delivering projects and managing change.
"We believe our industry's best practice methodologies and frameworks provide the foundation to vendors, channel partners and end users to address these areas and the channel players who specialise in these best practices will be the ones who succeed."
The three main factors driving skills acquisition are technology change, the pursuit of best practice and professional development for IT, according to Shaw.
"Cloud computing and managed services bring the risk that fewer infrastructure specialists are required," he said. "This could be because the infrastructure is now at the service provider, and managed by them, or perhaps is now managed by an offshore outsourcer.
"Our view is that there is no better professional than an ICT Professional to manage an ICT service or project so this presents an opportunity for experienced infrastructure specialists to add process certifications to their skill set to mitigate this risk."
National plan needed
In the long term, the experts all agree there is a greater need for home grown talent. In the absence of government support for innovation, Australia's chief scientist, Ian Chubb, is calling on industry to support a national plan to boost the level of STEM graduates in Australia to help alleviate the shortages in the long term.
"The answer for Australia is not to turn our back on science but capitalise on the potential demonstrated here," he said. "This is a challenge that goes beyond the capacity of any individual firm, university, or government and I am calling for a national agenda and a national plan for science in Australia.
"We need a national consensus and a shared commitment to act on it and, in particular, we need leadership from industry."