What can we learn from Australia's digital marketing skills shortage?

I’m an English-born Australian who loves both his new country and his industry, digital marketing, an industry I’ve been wedded to since leaving university twenty years ago. When I first arrived in Australia, I quickly learned that digital marketing was propped up by imports, mostly ‘POMs’ like myself with little focus on nurturing local talent.

At the time it wasn’t an issue for the industry and there were several key reasons why. Media investment in digital channels was minimal, employees didn’t need to be as highly skilled as they do now to drive results, 457 visas flowed freely, citizenship was almost a guarantee - and us ex-pats even had LAFHA. God, I miss LAFHA.

Those times have evolved but the lack of focus in growing local talent remains stagnant. One of Australia’s largest media agency networks WPP, last year announced that over 50% of all their client’s media investment is in digital marketing. LinkedIn posted that globally over 60% of the top 20 skills employers are looking for sit within digital marketing-related fields. LAFHA is dead and ‘marketing specialist’ no longer enables the skilled foreign workforce to remain in the country by providing a clear route to permanent residency.

What I don’t understand is how the industry, which I believe is dynamic, inventive and forward-thinking hasn’t changed tact. Salaries for under skilled digital marketers with limited tenure are unworkable but ever-increasing. Our appetite for importing foreign talent that can no longer stay and provide an ongoing solution hasn’t waned. Furthermore, we continue to neglect focusing our efforts on growing local talent. Of course, there are pockets of people, companies and organisations going against the grain but the light is not on and certainly isn’t burning brightly for the masses.

Is this issue one that only Australia faces? I called colleagues working in other countries and the issue is universal from the UK to the USA, Korea through to Bangladesh. The Digital Marketing Institute’s ‘Skills Gap Study’ states that only 38% of US respondents working in digital marketing reached a competent sill level in a test-based review.  The UK came in at 37%.

The UK and Europe Commission take it so seriously that they have commissioned studies on the broader ‘Digital’ skills gap.

I’m not foolish enough too believe I have the skill set or knowhow to fix the issue but I know that change must be initiated, that local and national organisations need to become involved, and I believe this is the starting point;

The Universities - It’s easy to place blame on the universities but if agencies at the industry’s coal face struggle to remain relevant and up to date, then what chance do the universities have?

However, marketing lecturers can lean on practitioning digital marketeers, technology providers and media outlets to help build course material and teach up to date practices. More importantly, (to my mind anyway) is that career teams start to educate non-marketing majors that their skills are highly valued in the field of digital marketing;

  • Statistics for all those big data and analytics projects
  • Journalism to quench our thirst for content marketing
  • Accounting to garner trends from a paid media account

The agency I work at hosted an event called Digital Cadets with Google, Randstad and ADMA at the SCG in May. Its purpose was to educate a couple of hundred of NSW’s brightest university students on how to get into digital marketing and what to expect from working in the industry. The stats tell an interesting story;

  • 97% of delegates believed their university needed to improve its focus on digital marketing
  • 86% of delegates are more likely to pursue a career in the industry after attending the event
  • 100% of delegates said the event increased their digital marketing knowledge

University students clearly aren’t job ready when it comes to digital marketing, but the fault doesn’t solely lie at the feet of the universities: it’s a joint effort.

Industry Associations – They obviously can’t cap industry salaries, but they can work with the larger agency groups, tech businesses and corporates to agree salary benchmarks. In an ideal world we would all work to these benchmarks and level out salaries.

We can then all go back to attracting employees based on the merit of our individual organisations – quality of work and product, culture and perks, career development and training – rather than what we’re prepared to pay. We would then also be able to provide our clients with better value for money.

Industry associations also need to do a better job working with universities to attract talent from a diverse mix of degrees. These students simply don’t know that digital marketing is an option for them and who better to inform them!

From the Digital Cadets event we employed three graduates of which only one was studying marketing. One has a Bachelor of Business and the other a Bachelor of Computer Science. Without the event would they have pursued a career in digital marketing?

Employers – I hope this insatiable need for talent doesn’t recede as it proves the industry has a healthy future. What I do hope is that large agency groups and employers start to wean themselves off imports, start to employ young home-grown talent and heavily train them. In digital marketing training cannot be conducted solely in the classroom. It needs to be on the tools and tasks need to be repeated till they become second nature.

We also need employers to stop themselves being held to ransom and paying over inflated and unsustainable salaries. I can’t see how this can happen until the panic of finding replacement staff for those exiting, calms down. Finding someone within a typical notice period in a skill short market is driving desperation and exacerbating the issue. Better forecasting and employing ahead of the curve aren’t easy but will provide better results and in the long run prove to make financial sense.

Department of Immigration – I’m in the minority when I say I think the government’s working visa shake up was a good thing. Where I think it failed was the speed in which it was implemented and the lack of notice provided. If the industry could have had a period where we worked towards becoming more sustainable, it would have gone a long way to helping with the pinch we’re currently feeling. We would have then had the opportunity to implement the above strategies and be more self-sufficient.

On top of that I’d suggest augmenting legislation to provide only senior members of the marketing fraternity with more tenure, the ability to have a direct route from temporary work visa to permanent residency. That would allow to us attract and keep more senior talent in the country. The type of talent that would help us train our home-grown juniors.

Behind closed doors this issue is greatly discussed but with a mostly NIMBY mentality. Almost like it will fix itself. When it’s raised in public forums it’s typically mentioned with no solution being provided. It should be front and center at industry events, publications, blogs and meet up’s. I just hope we start to take the issue seriously and put into place measures to fix it.

Interested in hearing leading global brands discuss subjects like this in person?

Find out more about the Digital Marketing World Forum (#DMWF) international event series, arriving in Amsterdam from September 19-20 and New York from November 7-8.

Related Stories

Leave a comment

Alternatively

This will only be used to quickly provide signup information and will not allow us to post to your account or appear on your timeline.