Election winner must fix digital economy

Marion RaeAAP
Almost nine in 10 jobs now require digital literacy skills, which many Australians lack.
Camera IconAlmost nine in 10 jobs now require digital literacy skills, which many Australians lack. Credit: AP

The federal election winner will take on a digital economy struggling to attract tech talent and a world on alert for a Russian cyber offensive.

"We are seeing a skills shortage everywhere, everywhere in the world, especially in some of the areas we operate - cyber, large networks, communications," says Verizon executive Sowmyanarayan Sampath.

"That's why we have to work with governments, with universities, to get in early and build those skill sets," the chief revenue officer at the multinational technology conglomerate tells AAP.

On top of rising cyber threats to key infrastructure, this scarcity of expertise has particularly hurt the small businesses politicians of all stripes describe as the "backbone of the economy".

Almost nine in 10 jobs now require digital literacy skills, which many Australians lack.

Further, three quarters of Australian chief information security officers see human error as their organisations' biggest cyber vulnerability, according to research by US software firm Proofpoint.

Its Annual Voice report reveals 68 per cent of Aussie CISOs feel at-risk of a material cyber attack in the next 12 months, compared to a global average of 48 per cent.

Former United States ambassador to Australia, and namesake of Flinders University's Jeff Bleich Centre for technology and security, says some of the greatest threats reside in space and cyber.

"New technologies have empowered hostile nations, organised crime networks, terror groups and hacktivists with low-cost, high-impact tools," Mr Bleich says.

"The threats go beyond damage to grids, finance systems - they threaten things as basic as how we elect our leaders and govern ourselves, and how we will work with close allies."

Potentially bolstering security and innovation, Labor plans to add 340,000 jobs to the tech sector by the end of the decade if elected.

The coalition's jobs plan also aims to make Australia a top-10 data and digital economy by 2030.

Joseph Lyons, managing director for Australia and Asia at New Zealand-headquartered Xero, says technology, upskilling and digital support for small businesses have been a campaign focus from both sides.

"It's important their needs are taken into account," he insists.

A poll of small business operators by the tech firm found more than 40 per cent consider policies supporting them to be their top factor when deciding who to vote for.

It also found small business technology adoption lagging, with many unprepared to move to basic innovations like e-invoicing.

Some 40 per cent have been impacted by the tech skills shortage over the past two years, while one third believe a cash rebate or grant to spend on technology would help them make use of more digital tools.

New payment systems, online bookkeeping and cyber security upgrades would be eligible under the $1 billion tax break in the last budget for companies to go digital.

Digital Economy Minister Jane Hume has also pledged to create an industry roundtable to thrash out issues and wants to attract women to the sector.

Labor says it will support more tech jobs through 465,000 fee-free TAFE places and an extra 20,000 university places.

But with immigration yet to ramp up and unemployment at its lowest since 1974, economists say there is little capacity in the economy.

The Council of Small Businesses Organisations Australia says skills and training boosts promised by both sides are welcome but don't address critical shortages members are experiencing today.

It is also important for the business owner to get federal support to upskill themselves, council CEO Alexi Boyd says.

Lars Leber, vice president Australia at Intuit QuickBooks, says whichever party wins, going digital is crucial to ensure firms have better cashflow from being paid quicker, can access capital and face less red tape.

"Just one in four small businesses are able to get the funding they need to start and scale operations," he says.

Interest rates are typically higher and banks often reluctant to lend to newer companies with small revenues.

Mr Leber says the next federal government can learn from others, including the UK's and its Help to Grow: Digital scheme to boost productivity and innovation.

Labor's big-ticket item came late in the campaign.

As the era of cheap capital comes to an end, its proposing a $1 billion critical technologies fund, working with superannuation and venture capital groups to back Australia's leading tech thinkers and their firms.

The plan is to engage industry to lift Australia's research and development investment closer to the three per cent of GDP seen in similar countries.

The coalition also intends to be a STEM superpower, with a fund to commercialise science, technology, engineering and mathematics breakthroughs.

Mr Sampath says Australia needs to have access to every piece of good technology written around the world and must upskill its people.

Diversity is also crucial for establishing and running cyber teams, tapping new talent pools from different backgrounds, ethnicities and orientations.

Verizon is on a heightened sense of alert around Russia and the potential for a cyber offensive but says security crews are not seeing anything they haven't seen before.

Mr Sampath says nine of 10 large breaches are by organised criminal syndicates for money.

"They're getting smarter, which is why all the people on the other side need to get smarter too," he says.

"It's not about James Bond, it's not about state secrets, it's about money.

"If you're a criminal enterprise, you can work from anywhere, you can work from home, from any country and get paid in a way that cannot be tracked through Bitcoin."

The government's 2022 budget pledged a bold $9.9 billion for cyber security over 10 years, including almost 2000 recruits for the Australian Signals Directorate to combat the expertise and reach of adversaries.

But they will take years to find and clear through extensive vetting.

Governments remain reliant on private sector expertise, investment by businesses to protect themselves and trusted partners.

"The government can't do it alone, Australia can't do it alone," Mr Sampath says.

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