Children should learn computer coding and Mandarin in schools, the local chief of General Electric says, or Australia could fall behind regional heavyweights in the battle to stay competitive.

In a diverse presentation at WestBusiness ’ Leadership Matters breakfast yesterday, Geoff Culbert, the Australian and New Zealand president of the 123-year-old technology company, said Australia also needed to give away its hardware manufacturing dream and focus on software.

He said GE — which has a diverse range of businesses in Australia, including Pilbara train engines, medical equipment and wind turbines — was going through its biggest transformation, with a greater focus on technological innovation, as well as the sale of assets such as its financial services unit.

“We need to diversify our economy, ” Mr Culbert said.

“We can’t compete in many areas but we can compete in technology because size and scale don’t matter when it comes to technology.

“We all bemoan the demise of manufacturing here in Australia but the days where we could compete in the manufacturing of hard assets is over.

“We don’t have the size, we don’t have the scale and we don’t have the cost base. But we can compete in the manufacturing of software, and that’s where our future must lie.”

Echoing the comments of Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who in his Budget reply speech proposed all children should learn coding as a core skill, Mr Culbert said coding, the digital language used to build computer programs, should become a “second language” in Australia.

Mr Culbert, who spent three years living in Hong Kong, also raised the long-held conviction in business circles that young Australians should be learning the Chinese language rather than European languages.

“I would like it (coding) to come to schools as an entry-point subject, ” he said. “I came back from Asia last year and put my kids into school in Sydney, and my son was doing handwriting homework and my daughter was learning French.

“I’m thinking, ‘why aren’t you learning coding and why aren’t you learning Mandarin?’

“In Hong Kong, my kids were doing an hour of Mandarin a day; China is our biggest trading partner and right above us, we’ve got to be learning the Mandarin language.”

Pointing to GE’s own moves to introduce skills such as coding for children of GE employees, Mr Culbert said if Australia was to cultivate the type of innovation seen in Silicon Valley, it needed a joint government and private enterprise response.

“It has to be a collective effort, ” he said.

“We have creativity, if we can harness that we can be the next Silicon Valley.

“But it’s going to require leadership from all of us ... from the classroom right through to the boardroom.”


© The West Australian

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