Jessica Macpherson has 100 people on her Zoom calls, enough to convince the entrepreneur there is a big pool of untapped talent waiting for a crack at the tech sector. Through her social enterprise business, BlazeYourTrail.org, Macpherson tutors people to help them break into a jobs market that, while desperate for labour, often is still closed to them.
The platform gives migrant workers a chance to gain technical work experience by volunteering to support not-for-profits.
“Probably about 60 per cent of the students are not working outside the home, so they’re mums at home with small children or homeschooling,” Macpherson says. “Of the current 100 students, 80 per cent are women, 25 were the first person in their family to go to university. The average year of graduation is 2008, so that they’ve all had several years of work experience.”
They come to BlazeYourTrail.org to learn how to use software and other tools, with Macpherson pointing them to Trailhead, the free online learning platform set up by the multinational Salesforce.
Salesforce Australia and New Zealand chief executive Pip Marlow says that even before the pandemic Australia was feeling the challenge around skills shortages in digital business.
“Then overnight we quickly learnt that if you didn’t have a digital business, you didn’t have a business,” she says.
“The world changed overnight and the skills shortage was amplified. We are living in a world where the demand side is outstripping the skills availability.”
Marlow’s comments come as pressure builds on government and business to address a drastic skills shortage in tech. This week, the nation’s top tech companies released a statement arguing that graduates and migrants would not fix the predicted gap of about 60,000 workers across the next five years and that retraining was needed (see below).
Marlow says it’s not the government’s job to fix the problem. She says: “It is only when the public and the private sector work together to solve it that we can do something about that. If Covid taught us anything it is that if you want to move quickly, you can. People are looking around and saying what’s next for me – and it has to be around digital skills.”
While skilled migrants will always play a role, she says we must boost the skills of people already here. Australia has a highly skilled workforce yet we are one of the worst countries when it comes to getting women, for example, to participate.
Says Marlow: “Platforms like Trailhead are critical to closing the digital skills gap, particularly from an accessibility standpoint. Skills have to be accessible in a way that women, students and anyone who wants to learn can dip in and out. We can’t rely on university degrees as the only opportunity to skill-up.”
Trailhead, set up in 2014, offers courses in Google Analytics, artificial intelligence, blockchain, managing people and running performance as well as specific Salesforce skills.
Melbourne-based Macpherson says the women who sign up for her tutorials typically have gone to university, then work, marry and arrive in Australia as a “trailing spouse”.
“They really find it impossible to get employed in Australia,” she says. “They’ve got a master’s degree in physics or pharmacy or computer applications. There’s no one who is a migrant who doesn’t have some form of tertiary education.
“But they find it impossible to get their resume to the top of the pile. It’s so hard.”
A big disadvantage is that these women often live a two-hour train trip from the central business district, she says: “If you’ve got primary school aged kids you can’t take a full-time job, but part-time jobs are few and far between.”
About 90 per cent of her students are Indian nationals but Macpherson has tutored Americans, Kenyans and migrants from Pakistan, Iran and Iran.
Says Macpherson: “I’ve had people come to me and say back in India I worked for a health department. I was responsible for the database at a large hospital. So I think, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, why have you not been employed?”
Her journey to BlazeYourTrail.org began as a child on a New Zealand farm. She was 13 when her father bought a Commodore 64 computer – a rarity at the time – and she was hooked on tech.
“When I was at university, I was the only person who handed my essays in typed because I had my own computer and printer at home,” she says.
Working in hospitality in New Zealand and later in Australia in wine sales she was frustrated that the industry operated without technology and the benefits it would have brought to inventory, supply lines and management of supply and demand.
After a break from work for parenting, Macpherson turned to tech again when she set up a community volunteering platform, St Kilda Mums, to recycle second-hand nursery goods. It began as a hobby in 2009 and by 2013 Macpherson was employed as the chief executive. It now has about 16 full-time staff plus casuals and provides almost 70 different items, from nappies and wipes to high chairs and toys and books, to families in need. Macpherson stepped down as chief executive to set up BlazeYourTrail.org but says she’s immensely proud of how St Kilda Mums has inspired and supported similar groups across Australia.