Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Sector’s verdict as Govt adds 600 tech visas

Tech leaders have mixed reactions to news that 600 specialist tech workers will be allowed to travel to New Zealand under new border exception rules from “early 2022”.

Software and application programmers, ICT managers, ICT security specialists and multimedia specialists will be welcome to help meet demand which can’t be matched domestically, Digital Economy and Communications Minister David Clark said.

“In reality, the 600 is a drop in the ocean of current demand,” said Graeme Muller, chief executive of NZTech, which includes most of the large technology companies operating in NZ in its membership.

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“But it is great that the Government has recognised the urgent need and that the current options are not working.”

Some 3000 new tech visas are needed, says Bruce Gordon, the former Pushpay chairman who now sits on a new industry group called the KiwiSaaS council, which is backed by Callaghan Innovation and NZ Trade & Enterprise.

Gordon called the 600 exceptions a “temporary fix” for the sector, where he said the average salary for a SaaS (software-as-a-service or “cloud”) worker was $105,000.

He added, “For every 1000 SaaS workers another $100m is injected into the economy in spending and tax in wages by New Zealanders annually. That could be another $300m for our economy if we can train a local workforce to fill those 3000 tech vacancies.”

ANZ alone has said its ICT department is short of 300 roles, while our largest IT services company, Datacom, told the Herald mid-year it had hired 200 new staff but was after another 250.

Since the start of the outbreak, the Government has steered the tech industry to the “Other Critical Worker” visa option, but over the past 18 months only around 128 have been issued. Tech firms from niche software player Raygun to the large like Vodafone NZ told the Herald they found the system unresponsive and too tricky to navigate.

Last week, Mario Wynands – the head of PikPok, NZ’s largest employer of game developers, with its complement of 190 staff – told the Herald he was reluctantly opening a new studio overseas after “too little, too late moves by the Government”.

This morning, Wynands – who discussed possible reforms with Clark – said, “It is a great step to release some of the pressure in the local market, and I’m grateful we can leverage this.But it still, unfortunately, falls far short of pre-Covid annual tech immigration, and won’t meet demand with currently open roles by a wide margin.”

He added, “We need to continue to work on the issue from multiple angles.”

A recent report authored by NZTech and IT Professionals NZ called for a range of measures, from a specialised tech visa and liberalised immigration rules for high-skilled tech workers to more industry internships, measures to encourage more students into tech to top up the funnel of local workers, more mid-career training options and changes, the creation of a Māori digital skills body, and changes to Government procurement rules to “truly prioritise local firms” who could invest in training and building the local skills base.

So far, Clark has not adopted any of the recommendations.

Like the tech sector has a whole, video game developers have grown during the pandemic as lockdowns have fuelled demand for digitisation of work and entertainment.

But Wynands said opportunities are still being missed as pandemic restrictions act as a handbrake on faster growth.

And the PikPok boss said the situation was being made worse by our Government failing to match tax incentives announced in Australia in May, which made it harder to recruit staff and harder to retain existing talent. Already, he and other gaming studios had seen some of their key staff lured across the Tasman.

Looking in the mirror

Although border restrictions have exacerbated the talent squeeze, the tech industry has also had to look in the mirror. The NZTech/IT Professionals NZ report noted that inhouse training had fallen away as the sector became overly reliant on immigration. It also noted that a lack of diversity and noted that some candidates outside its white male base found the IT industry’s recruitment and interview process intimidating.

The report noted that in 2019 – the final full year before the pandemic closed borders – 4462 new IT jobs were created and 3683 visas were approved for IT professionals to immigrate to New Zealand, more than the total number of students graduating from tertiary study in tech qualifications combined.

The pandemic has seen tech companies reanimate some training initiatives and introduce new ones.

Datacom, for example, has worked with iwi agencies on scholarships and other education support and, along with Spark, the Tindall Foundation and others, supported the Take2 initiative to rehabilitate prisoners with training in software coding, along with broader skills like communications. And Microsoft’s recently-introduced 10KWahine initiative aims to bring together NZ tech companies to give 10,000 female students, career-changers and women returning to the IT workforce via mentoring and free or heavily-discounted training courses.

Chelsea Rapp, who heads the NZ Game Developers Association, told the Herald that her sector supported efforts to improve diversity and inhouse training. But she added that there was a roadblock at the border – which made it difficult to recruit for specialised roles where talent could only be found offshore, which in turn crimped local efforts.

“As soon as the border opens, we’ll have the ability to attract senior talent, and that’ll allow all of the studios across New Zealand to be able to hire juniors because they need that senior talent to train those juniors,” Rapp said.

Gordon struck a similar note for his cloud computing group.

“Immigration is best utilised to bring in strategic SaaS [software-as-service] business experts with entrepreneurial skills. The core focus should be to attract global SaaS talent with expertise in scaling high-growth companies. Immigration is our best tool here to bring in the experts that can develop new Kiwi talent and teach our SaaS community how to create globally successful SaaS businesses,” he said.

The industry and government are working through the details for a scheme for allocating the class exception, with the view to having it operational in early 2022, Clark said.More details will be released in coming weeks.

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