APS urged to upskill as predicted shortfall in ICT, cybersec workforce identified across government

Australia’s public sector could face significant shortages in digital-ready workforces over the next decade, as less than half of all APS agencies are actively and strategically supporting the development of critical workforce skills and capabilities in digital, a report by the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) has found.

The APS’s Workforce Strategy report, Delivering for Tomorrow, stressed that a shortfall in data and digital specialist roles across the public sector should be addressed proactively with new recruits, rather than simply when vacancies arise.

A key finding within the Strategy was the need to enhance the digital skills of the APS workforce and embrace data, technology and “flexible and responsive workforce models” that can keep pace with the rapid rollout of digital transformation initiatives.

Fewer than nine per cent of the APS workforce currently occupies ICT and cybersecurity roles, while digital literacy ranks among the top skills in-demand within government.

Digital transformation has undoubtedly been accelerated by the Covid-19 lockdowns, the report noted. User adoption of digital technologies by consumers and businesses advanced “five years in approximately eight weeks” during the pandemic, underscoring the need for the APS to be adequately resourced with skilled digital, cyber, and data professionals that can meet growing demand for online citizen services and support the increased use of data to “streamline decision-making structures”.

An estimated 17,000 more cyber experts will be required across private and public sectors over the next five years to 2026, the report found.

As such, the APSC said it would direct focus on developing entry programs to attract talent to skills growth areas, including data and digital.

In the meantime, the Strategy reinforces the need to reskill and develop existing workforces to meet the increased demand for talent across government.

The APSC will develop a yearly “APS-specific skills forecast” through its annual State of the Service report, to determine emerging skills, identify skills gaps, and ensure agencies have the required capabilities.

By 2030, the APSC predicts more than two million government employees will lack sufficient digital skills. To combat this skills shortfall, the report urged the APS to adopt a “culture of continuous learning” and to ensure workers are meeting changing employee expectations.

For this, the public service should support more flexible and remote working arrangements and upskill employees in a wider variety of areas. The APS will even look to increase its regional presence to appeal to a larger talent pool.

In the wake of 2020’s devastating bushfire season and onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the APSC has also seen fit to roll out a rapid response ‘APS Surge Reserve’ unit. This mobile workforce will be able to assist with “largescale responses to unforeseen workloads” in the future, allowing the APS to share and deploy resources easily when needed.

According to the Strategy, digital transformation is driving demand for “more tailored, data-informed solutions” within the APS. This aligns with the agency’s own growth projections for data, digital and intelligence, and policy analysis specialists, which are anticipated to see the largest increase in demand across all job categories.

Skills in data science were also identified within the Strategy as key to the future success of the APS. With “sophisticated data and data analysis techniques”, the APS will be better informed when assessing the impact of policy and decisions on outcomes for Australian communities.

Yet competition with the private sector for data talent will be fierce. At least nine out of every 10 Australian companies are also investing in big data analytics, the report noted, hinting at a likely skills shortage of data professionals in the near future, and ultimately, reinforcing the need for the APS to fast-track its planning and recruiting.

Several strategies have been earmarked by the APS to combat skills shortages, including the development of a “package of tools and resources” to support agencies in delivering digital transformation, as well as partnering with industry experts to leverage innovation labs and training agreements.

The Strategy also calls for the APS to be “less restricted and siloed” and more integrated. This will facilitate the creation of a more mobile workforce, enabling the APS to meet the changing demands of Australians and respond more quickly when unexpected or devastating events, such as the Covid pandemic, occur.

The Strategy is the first of its kind, coming as a result of research and collaboration with Australia’s public service agencies.

Some actions outlined in the Strategy are already in the process of being, or have been, implemented. For instance, the APS is already developing an APS Reskilling Guide with tools to support agencies in digital upskilling, as well as an APS Mobility Framework to guide efforts at mobilising and deploying workforces more seamlessly.

The DTA Digital Career Pathways Program has also been launched in an effort to support digital transformation initiatives within the public sector.

Other actions will continue to be rolled out across the next few years with the outcomes to be “monitored systematically” up until 2025.