Ai Group’s Centre for Education and Training team recently caught up with IBM about its long running partnership with Federation University. IBM, Federation University Australia and its predecessor institution, the University of Ballarat, have benefitted from a collaborative relationship for over 25 years. Since 1995 IBM Australia has operated the data centre in the Ballarat Technology Park on the Mt Helen Campus of Federation University Australia. Establishing this proximity was strategic – to take advantage of access to IT and business talent coming out of the local university.

IBM Australia has become a significant part of the Ballarat regional economy, and the mutually beneficial partnership has developed and strengthened over time, embedding innovative initiatives that are equally beneficial to the local region, and to Australia’s economic growth.

A recent economic impact analysis undertaken by the Western Region Institute found that in 2018-19, IBM Australia's presence in the Ballarat Technology Park contributed $124M to the gross state of Victoria product, 711 direct and indirect jobs, and 54.2M to household income in the Ballarat LGA.

An integral part of the collaborative activities involves skills development, education, and training. Through the partnership, the university has developed one of the most prestigious information technology (IT) degrees in Australia, and redefined work experience as a basic tenet of a business degree.

In 2001, the University established a Bachelor of IT (Professional Practice), with IBM helping to shape the curriculum and providing lecturers. The academic work is paired with a 1,600-hour internship with IBM Australia, so the students are involved with invaluable real world industry experience – and receive a scholarship. IBM established the partnership with the degree to ensure that graduates had in demand skills and technical capabilities when they enter the workforce. The aim was to give students practical experience while they were still undergraduates, partly so the students would be ready for the workforce, but also to encourage them to consider IBM as an employer.

The partnership provides mutual benefits to IBM Australia, Federation University and its students. IBM Australia can ensure it has a pool of talented local graduates to meet its workforce demands, while the university is able to provide a holistic undergraduate experience that gives students relevant industry skills and the opportunity to apply their studies in the workplace through an internship program, while receiving financial support via a scholarship.

IBM Australia has hired around 360 local and international graduates of Federation University through the program to work in Australia and overseas. Since the partnership began there has been an expansion of the degree program to include students from the school of business and most recently the launch of the Bachelor of Cognitive Enterprise degree, as well as joint IBM–Federation University PhD scholarships.

Pathways for school students and disadvantaged cohorts

In 2016, IBM launched into a different level of program - to support secondary school students from diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds. With Federation College, IBM commenced Australia’s first Pathways In Technology Early College High School (P-TECH), involving a six-week paid program at Certificate III in IT. More than 300 secondary school students via 16 schools have now participated in the innovative P-TECH program, which creates alternative pathways for students into a career in information technology. The program encourages youth who have become disengaged from traditional education. Participating students have said for the first time in their lives they feel respected and valued. They graduate with industry experience and are encouraged to go on and do a bachelor’s degree.

Another IBM initiative run out of the Ballarat Technology Park, the Neurodiversity Employment Program, began in 2019 and provides opportunities for students with autism, whose specialised skillsets offer the company a competitive advantage. IBM found that this cohort can be challenged because traditional interview techniques don’t always accommodate the needs of people on the spectrum, and a special recruitment program has been developed.

Through partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Not-for-Profit organisations, IBM is also proactively working to overcome systemic racism that contributes to low levels of indigenous representation in the IT industry. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander high school leavers, university students and graduates are all proactively sourced to undertake IBM’s programs and become employed.

Investments paying off more broadly

IBM invests a large number of staff hours and significant funds each year in its education and training programs, but the rewards are clear. Today, 30 per cent of the IT students at Federation University are women, which is double the national average. Academic performance is strong, with 80 per cent of students achieving a Distinction average, and employment prospects are bright. In 2001, fewer than 40 per cent of Federation University IT graduates found work in the sector. Today, it’s almost 70 per cent and IBM has employed more than 300 out of 400 graduates to date.

The Victorian Government’s investment in the Technology Park has also paid off. Today’s three Ballarat Technology Park sites host 64 enterprises, which collectively adds $476 million to the Ballarat economy, $628.8M to the Victorian economy and $700.5M to the Australian economy.

The partnership between Federation University and IBM has also opened the way for other collaborations. One is the Internet Commerce Security Lab (ICSL), founded in 2008 as a four-way partnership between the state government, the University, IBM and Westpac. The ICSL now has multiple partners – including the Australian Federal Police and the Defence Science Institute, plus other universities – on projects as significant as cybersecurity, fraud detection, and identity theft.

IBM’s investment, innovative leadership and partnering in skills development has shown to have an enduring impact on its own and the economy’s success. The learning culture has meant it is able to rapidly access emerging niche skills through the local education industry ecosystem, adopt new technologies and focus on speed of execution.

*This article includes text from an article by Felicity Carter, in The Brilliant, published by STEM Matters, and the Western Regional Institute’s  Ballarat Technology Park Economic Impact report