A narrowing salary gap between professionals and blue-collar workers could be deterring young people from higher education, warns the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers, Australia (APESMA), which last week called on the Australian Fair Pay Commission to conduct an urgent review of professional salary rates. Highlighting what he says is a significant erosion of professional rates of pay, APESMA chief executive John Vines says increases in the minimum wages of technology-based professionals were long overdue. "The safety net, or minimum rates of pay for professionals, has lost relativity to the minimum rates paid to other workers over the last 15 years," he says. "We believe it's time that there was a review of professional rates to insure the rates contained in those awards reflect the marketplace to a better degree than they currently do, and in particular to ensure the relativity between professionals and blue-collar workers are restored." Since the last review of rates paid to technology-based professionals was conducted by the Industrial Relations Commission more than 15 years ago, minimum wages for IT workers across the board have been increased in flat-dollar amounts. The most recent changes made to national award rates saw a $27 increase for IT professionals and tradespeople alike. "15 years ago, the rate of pay for a level 3 professional was set at 220 percent of the tradesman's rate. As a result of the decline in relativity, that's now dropped to 174 percent," Vines explains. Today's salary benchmarks are a poor reflection of the increasing responsibilities faced by high-level IT staff, Vines says. "Professionals are having to take a more individual responsibility for the work that they do, the way in which they perform their work, and their professional development, and we think that should be recognised in the remuneration that is available to them," he says. "The rates in the awards have not reflected that increase in responsibility, and have, in fact, gone the other way." Minimum rates of pay are far from an indication of average salaries, which in recent times have been said to be increasing due to a shortage of IT workers in Australia. While the award rate for IT professionals is currently set at around $35,000, APESMA estimates the average starting salary to be in the ballpark of $43,000. However, improvements in the award rate are likely to affect workers currently receiving base pay, who are estimated to make up a significant portion - about 10 percent - of professionals in the IT industry. Furthermore, Vines warns that the narrowing wage structure could be turning potential IT workers away from tertiary education if they perceive little benefit in a professional career. "If it's not addressed, then I think it's going to deter young people from taking on professional careers, because they'll look at them and say, 'Okay I'll have to do four years of university, and when I come out of it, I won't be paid much more than somebody who doesn't have to go through all that study'," he says. "It is critical that during a time of major skills shortages in Australia that the value of professional salaries is restored to at least its previous level or ideally, improved."
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