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ATEED’s Patrick McVeigh on how to tackle the tech sector's skill shortage

Off the back of a wildly successful campaign to recruit foreign talent to Wellington’s tech sector, the tech employee shortage in New Zealand has been making headlines worldwide. But the problem can't be solved by just immigration alone. 

The aforementioned campaign, called LookSee, was a partnership between the Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency (WREDA) and Workhere New Zealand, a company focused on global recruitment marketing.

It was run in late February and offered to fly 100 applicants from all over the world and pay for their accommodation for a week while they interviewed at some of New Zealand’s best tech companies, such as Weta and Xero.

The campaign garnered over 48,000 applications (though no doubt some aspiring candidates just wanted a free holiday), more than 1.6 million website hits and various media outlets worldwide picking up the story, including the Daily Mail and Lonely Planet.

While the campaign was unanimously a hit, ATEED general manager of business, innovation and skills Patrick McVeigh says there are two points to address: One, New Zealand’s tech shortage isn’t just limited to ‘Silicon Welly’ and two, getting highly skilled immigrants to come work in the tech sector only fulfills one part of the puzzle.

Auckland’s part to play

Though Wellington boasts the likes of Xero, Trade Me and Weta Digital on its roster, the tech sector isn’t just thriving in the windy city.

In Auckland’s technology sector, 9000 jobs have been added in the last five years, while there’s been nearly 26 percent growth in the Auckland tech sector’s GDP.

Innovation hubs like GridAKL and the AR/VR Garage are also emerging across the city and fostering talent.


The AR/VR Garage

Infometrics’ March 2017 Perspectives Report predicts that Auckland’s economy will add over 83,000 jobs over the next four years.

McVeigh says a lot of these jobs are expected to be in advanced industries like tech, strengthening New Zealand’s offering beyond just dairy and tourism.

But he says even the traditional industries are affected by tech and digital growth.

“What you’re seeing is a degree of industrial restructuring in New Zealand’s economy base, growing sectors beyond the more traditional industries,” he says.

“Talent is the lifeblood of how those sectors grow and even the more traditional sectors are being disrupted by tech and digital platforms, as they also require those skills.”

Because of this, he says, the tech sector is critical to New Zealand’s overall economy as a whole.

“Technology is needed in other industries, so in that sense - Air New Zealand is a tech business, Fonterra is a tech business, as those tech skills are needed in all of those other sectors.”

But while the demand is there, the talent that’s required is not.

McVeigh says recent research carried out by ATEED revealed there’s a shortage of applicants to fill the tech roles up for grabs within Auckland.

“We did some work where we interviewed over 100 Auckland companies in the advanced industries sector, and what they tell us is 75 percent of those companies are reporting difficulties filling vacancies, while six percent have been unable to fill vacant positions.”

The question up for debate is how to most effectively fill those gaps: Encourage more international students to stay put? Grow local talent? Recruit from overseas? Or all of the above?

Attracting top talent

McVeigh says when it comes to the tactic WREDA used to capture the imagination of the global talent pool via the LookSee campaign, it was clever because it leveraged the destination and lifestyle component at a time of political and economic unrest globally – i.e. Donald Trump and Brexit.

Seeking out global tech talent is timely, considering the Trump administration has recently decided that coding will be restricted as a ‘specialty occupation’ that can be claimed on the H1-B programme, an initiative that allows skilled migrants to come to the US for three years.

McVeigh says though ATEED might not necessarily replicate the campaign model used for LookSee, there are lessons to be learnt across the country about how to continue to ride this wave of success and draw in international talent.

“We’d be happy to get involved in a conversation on what would you do to build on the success of LookSee,” he says.

“There’s spill over benefits for New Zealand as a whole because there are a lot of people who won't get that opportunity to come here, but their awareness of New Zealand and the tech sector here will be piqued.

“I will not be surprised if there are ongoing benefits from people who are really keen and will look for employment opportunities, and I think Auckland will benefit as a result of that.”

Growing local talent

But recruiting overseas talent to fill the skill shortage isn't the only programme underway.

There are a number of initiatives raising the profile of the tech sector in New Zealand, such as OMGtech, Mindlab, start-up weekend, the Young Enterprise Scheme, Ideastarter, Developer Week and Dig My Idea.


MindLab

McVeigh says all of these are helping nurture the local tech sector ecosystem.

“Are they all as well understood and networked in as each other? Probably, but there’s always more that could be done,” he says. “That ecosystem is developing and maturing, because there’s been such growth in the sector.”

He says it’s incredibly important to make this ecosystem as diverse and widespread as possible, due to the way the modern economy is progressing.

“Most people entering the labour market today will have multiple jobs over their career, so you need to show that there’s depth and opportunity in the market to attract talent and that there’s a range of opportunities to work for different sized companies, different tech companies and different platforms.”

New Zealand also needs to ensure it maintains its unique sense of identity as it starts to become more of a player in the global market, he says.

“What makes us stand out as New Zealand? The importance of Maori identity, the fact we’re the capital of the Pacific for want of a better word, we need to make sure we grow and engage that image in an authentic way.”

Showing off the appeal of Auckland

Recently, ATEED was on the ground at Developer Week in San Francisco recruiting tech talent to relocate to New Zealand’s largest city. Read a blog post about the experience here.

McVeigh says the message pushed there was Auckland is tech’s best-kept secret, with huge industry growth happening in the city.

“If you look at both domestic and international companies here -  the movement of IBM into their new building in the Wynyard Quarter and large multinationals also associating themselves with that development of the GridAKL innovation precinct, there’s a lot happening in Auckland and it’s happening right now,” he says.


GridAKL

But the organisation is also focused on growing this talent pool locally, McVeigh says.

He says New Zealand’s Tech Week is helping increase the visibility of what’s happening locally, as well as connecting all the different events happening on the ground.

“Tech Week this year nationally is running 120 or events happening over eight days, so it’s raising the profile of the sector in a great way,” he says.

With all of these movements underway, it's key to understand that solving the tech sector’s skill shortage isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, he says.

“What I think the evidence shows is it’s not a binary choice,” he says. 

“It can’t be met just by existing supply, can’t be met only by immigration and it can’t be met only retaining international students. You’ve got to look at the whole supply, and grow the right skills that will help companies grow into the future.”