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StartupAUS CEO: Unis under ‘too much pressure’

Attention coders, salespeople and user experience (UX) designers: startups want you.

These were the three most in-demand industry skills, as revealed by a StartupAUS report launched on Thursday.

In its report, Australia’s peak national advocacy group for startups, in collaboration with Microsoft, UTS and Google, also noted that there is an emerging need for product managers and data scientists.

These results were obtained using information collected from 23 successful startups founders, in addition to jobs data from LinkedIn. They were then compared with hiring patterns in New Zealand, Canada and Finland, and other data from startup-heavy countries like the US, Germany and Israel.

Despite the jargon-heavy job descriptions, you don’t have to be a techie to score a role, Alex McCauley, StartupAUS’ CEO, suggested.

“One of the interesting bits to come out of the report is that there’s a very high demand for non-tech roles …

“Familiarity with technology and a passion for it is important for a lot of roles, for example, sales, but it’s not all about software developers…”

A product manager, for example, leads a multidisciplinary team (that often includes a researcher, designer, data scientist, tester, and developer) to strategise for and ultimately deliver a product, like an app.

Given the critical nature of these skills shortages, some of the more technical ones, like coding, may be filled by migrants. Yet for the more business-oriented ones like product management, existing skills, and, indeed, education, could plug the gaps.

You’ve got skills and you don’t know it

Bernie Makhlouf is a computer science graduate turned business analyst turned product manager. Her existing skills landed her a job at startup NABO, a private social network for neighbourhoods in Australia.

She never envisioned this occurrence.

“I happened to bump into NABO’s CTO, many years after we had worked together at a bank. He thought I should interview for the product manager role.

“It sounded like a great opportunity.

“At that point, NABO was essentially just an idea. It was grassroots, and it had a good business proposition – [compared to] selling home loans!”

McCauley said startups require skills that many people, like Makhlouf, already have. It’s just that they might not know this. “A lot of key startup hires for data scientist roles are coming out of academia … this wasn’t a natural link for me, necessarily.”

Makhlouf said skills, such as teamwork and leadership, can also be fostered. “People shouldn’t be afraid if they’re not great at something, because you’re not born with specific skills; they’re something you’re constantly developing.”

The role of universities – or not

McCauley said you can’t do a degree in most of the in-demand skills, as they are novel. But that doesn’t mean universities don’t have a role to play.

Firstly, universities can instill character traits in people, as well as teach adjacent skills. However, most significantly to him, universities can perform the function they were initially established for.

“Universities are often now seen as places where people go to start their careers, [yet people] traditionally went there to learn about the world and how to think.

“In a lot of ways, there’s too much pressure on universities to develop curricula and courses that cover the bases on all types of jobs.

“No large institution can be at the cutting edge of the business and technology curve. As this picks up pace, it’s reasonable to think of universities in the old way.”

He further contended that, given young people will change workplaces, on average, 17 times in their careers, there’s even more reason for universities to fulfill their original purposes.

Why start up?

While Makhlouf – who had been in the workforce for a decade by the time she joined NABO – had no financial or other qualms about joining a new company, others, perhaps particularly recent graduates, may not feel the same way.

McCauley sought to alleviate these possible fears.

“One of the biggest questions I get asked, day-to-day, is from parents, asking what kids should study or what jobs they should pursue.

“The biggest theme from those discussions is that traditionally high value degrees, particularly vocational ones, are no longer leading to ‘safe’ jobs because the economy is changing.”

What’s more, he said that jobs at startups, in general, aren’t as insecure as they used to be.

“Increasingly, there’s a lot of funding around for startups, and if you’re working for a funded one, it is not that risky. You’re not working for equity and ramen … you’ve got a proper salary.

“The second thing is that in the job market, experience working for a startup has gained a lot of caché, so the risk is balanced by this benefit. You’re part of a growing business, and get hands on experience doing this.”

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