Over the weekend I was fortunate enough to be involved in a piece for the Canberra Times on salaries in the ACT, thanks wholly to my journalist friend who set up the connection. Whilst the online version doesn’t show me in it (you’ll have to buy the paper for that!) the main thrust of it was that, for men at least, the highest paying industry you can be in is ICT. Whilst my part was merely to put the human element into the story it got me thinking about my career to date and why the IT industry in Canberra has been so lucrative over the past half decade or so. As far as I can tell it’s a local phenomena to Canberra thanks to a few obvious factors.
I’ve always been interested in computers but when it came time to choose my career I wasn’t really looking to end up where I am now. By training I’m technically an engineer and by rights I should’ve been seeking jobs in embedded systems or at the very least a software engineer role. It wasn’t for lack of trying however, after languishing on a help desk for a year and a half I finally struck out at my first programming job, applying for a junior developer position at the Australian Treasury Department. Funnily enough I actually got that role although instead of taking it I foolishly used it as leverage to get a similar job at my current work place. That of course was an unmitigated disaster as I was put into a team that didn’t want nor need me and less than 6 months later I jumped ship into my first system administrator role.
After making that jump the prospect of taking a massive pay cut to be an actual engineer didn’t look so appealing.
In fact the next few years saw me go on a roller coaster ride of several jobs in the IT industry. It wasn’t because I couldn’t hold a job down or I got fired for incompetence, more it was that I found people were more willing to pay market rates for new hires than they were to promote someone internally. The reason for this was simple, there’s has always been a shortage of skilled IT people in the Canberra area. The reasons behind that are twofold: all government departments have their head offices (and therefore the majority of their IT infrastructure) in Canberra and the population here is just over 350,000. This means it’s a seller’s market here when you’ve got skills in IT and it has been for the past 5 years.
Realistically it’s just another example simple economic principles in action. There’s a relatively fixed supply of skilled IT workers in Canberra and in order to increase that supply they have to make it attractive for people to consider making the move. The first, and usually primary, motivator for most people is base salary and when you’re competing against private industry in other states the wages have to be comparable for people to consider making the move. Over the years this quickly put the average IT wage well out of the reach of normal APS brackets and thus we saw the birth of the contractor industry in Canberra in order to keep the level of skills required in the region. There was of course the dark times when the Gershon Report was in full swing which kept the IT market down in Canberra for a short period of time but it rebounded with renewed gusto the second people realised work wasn’t getting done.
However I strongly believe that this is a local maxima, focused tightly around the Canberra region. Put simply the factors involved in driving IT salaries up just don’t exist in the same concentration outside Canberra as every other major city has a higher population and much smaller government presence. This doesn’t mean IT isn’t worth anywhere in Australia outside of Canberra, far from it. IT skills are amongst some of the most portable talents to have as nearly every industry in the world relies on IT for critical business functions. If you’re really trying to make the most of the IT industry in Australia (and you’re not an entrepreneur) then you really can’t go past Canberra, especially as a starting point.