Over 200,000 manufacturing jobs lost since 2008. Tens of thousands more to go in the auto industry as car makers exit. Another 50,000 jobs still to be shed as mining slides towards the bottom of the cycle. Five million Australian jobs to be automated by 2030.
So what will blue collar workers do when robots are running the factories and driving the trucks? The answer is hiding in plain sight but wunderkinds in hoodies are blocking it from view.
The working class of the future
Programming is the next big blue collar job category. We need to start thinking about coding not as a “high-stakes, sexy affair”, but the equivalent of skilled factory work, according to blogger and technology journalist Clive Thompson in a recent Wired article.
He gets a resounding “yes” from Australian experts. “There will be the equivalence of blue collar jobs in the digital economy, and coding will be one of them,” says Professor Marek Kowalkiewicz, PwC chair in digital economy at the Queensland University of Technology.
Self-taught coder Aaron Tyler, 32, is already set in what promises to be a solid, middle-class job for a lifetime. After school he moved to Sydney from the Central Coast and got a job in data entry for the Sydney City Council. But he wanted something more creative so after years of “tinkering around” learning code online at home he landed a job with Konica Minolta Business Solutions Australia.
He now works as a front-end developer in a team of 12, building websites for corporate clients. He says the pay is great compared to other people his age “considering that I haven’t got any qualifications”. He relishes the continuous on-the-job learning, creativity, problem solving and working as part of a team.
Programming will always have its superstars – the ones who “craft wild new algorithms for flash trading or neural networks”, as Thompson puts it. Those people might need 10 or 12 years of study and experience before they can perform at the high end of the coding spectrum, says Professor Kowalkiewicz. But most people working in coding won’t need to be nearly that qualified.
The rise of the ‘low skilled’ codie
Just as sparkies and plumbers and other tradies have been the engine room of the industrial economy, codies will be the engine room of the digital economy says Andrew Johnson, CEO of the Australian Computer Society, the professional association for the ICT sector.
“There’s a conception out there that coding is only for mathematically gifted people and it’s a highly complex field,” says Raman Nambiar, managing director of the Coder Factory Academy, one of a number of Silicon Valley-style coding boot camps that have spring up in Australia in the past two years. “It can be, but a growing number of positions are much more mainstream.”
He uses a building industry analogy: it needs architects and engineers and designers but also a lot of builders and tradesmen. Software, too, needs its architects, engineers, developers and designers, but “an awful lot of coders do things like quality checking and just building very basic code”.
“It can be learned fairly quickly, just like a vocational skill,” says Nambiar, whose academy offers weekend courses for $340. Its six-month intensive courses, 10 hours a day, five days a week, for $19,500, give people “enough skills to be competent in the job,” he says.
“We’re starting to see a lot of career changers. We have had train drivers, people from the construction trade and from other fields like psychology and finance.” And the age profile of students is “a little bit older than we first expected”, averaging in the mid-30s, he adds.
Alex Karolis did the six-month course last year. He started off in the army and then did a PhD in philosophy. Now he spends his days writing software to build and maintain a sophisticated data management tool for Event Hub, a cloud computing software platform that manages premium seating and corporate hospitality activities for companies, venues and event owners.
“I love it, absolutely love it. In hindsight it was a very good decision,” he says. He loves that coding is “very transparent. You can see exactly what you produce, there is no subjectivity, you know whether what you do is good or bad because it either does the job or it doesn’t.” He also loves the “passion and goodwill” in the industry, in which he says people are keen to help each other get a start and keep learning.
Anyone who is smart and keen can code, says Chris Monk, head of Asia-Pacific for Decoded, a coding school that offers “light touch” introductory courses for non-technical professionals. “There is no magic,” he says.
In Kentucky, one of the US states hardest hit by de-industrialisation, mining veteran Rusty Justice co-founded a business retraining coal miners as programmers. It received 950 applications for the first 11 positions. Miners have attributes that are valuable in coders, being accustomed to deep focus, team play and working with complex engineering technology, Wired reported.
Often students show up at Decoded’s “Code in a Day” course saying their brain doesn’t work that way but end the day amazed that they’ve built an app, Monk says. A day won’t give you the skills to get a coding job, but it’s enough to convey a basic idea of how coding works, he says.
How long it takes to qualify for a coding job depends on the type of job. About 150 registered training providers, including TAFE, offer IT qualifications that are great for entry level positions, says the ACS’s Johnson.
There are also vendor certifications for individual programming languages. “But if you are a kid and you’ve done some programming at school, you might not need any of that,” he says. Entry level salaries are about $50,000, ranging up to three times that for an experienced lead software developer.
Some of the best developers he knows are self-taught says Monk. “They wanted to build things from an early age then gradually formalised their education by self-directed learning, and end up in a workplace learning from colleagues,” he says.
Filling the gaps
The economy will need another 100,000 new ICT workers in the six years to 2021, according to Deloitte analysis. But not enough people are learning ICT skills, so 70,000 jobs will need to be filled either through immigration or from the existing workforce, saysJohnson. A “significant majority” of workers transitioning from other industries could fill the gap, says Kowalkiewicz. “Assuming a bit of upskilling these new coding jobs could become a viable alternative,” he says.
The professor distinguishes between coding as a job and coding as a skill. When everyday work. both white or blue collar, involves communicating via algorithms and with robots, “it’s a way of thinking that is required in the new economy,” he says.
“Computers don’t do complex things, they just do simple things really, really fast,” says Monk. Coding teaches you to break down a challenge into simple steps with the simple logic of “if this, then that”.
“The greatest take away we give people is that computational way of thinking, breaking tasks down into a thing a computer can understand,” he says.
Kids need to be learning it from primary school, but the Australian system is lagging behind the rest of the developed world, says Johnson. Uptake of the national IT curriculum in schools has been patchy.
Grass-roots coding initiatives have sprung up in many primary schools but many children still miss out. If it’s not happening in their child’s primary school, Mr Johnson advises parents to “go in and ask the principal how do we get this”.
“If your first experiences with technology are not enjoyable at a young age it is going to be very hard to attract you at a later age, so investment in primary schools is critical,” he says.
And to high school students, he advises, “Do not let go of maths! It’s a foundational skill, totally transferable in a digital world. If you stick with maths you are going to be in a good place.”