Juha Saarinen: Whats behind the lack of tech workers

OPINION:

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the world for good, and there’s no going back to how things were before the virus struck.

Among the permanent changes is the accelerated move to a digital economy, because there are no other options to keep business flowing. Things digital don’t happen by themselves however: you need techies of different kinds to build, set up and maintain the systems.

Luckily, we had the foresight to build the networked infrastructure in New Zealand to help pull us out of the pandemic disaster. If you wanted to hire the people to build what your organisation needs this year and onwards, well, 2020 would’ve been a good time to start looking for them.

Not that you could’ve stockpiled at the time the developers, designers, project managers and sysadmins and others who simply aren’t heeding the siren songs of recruiters this year.

Really, techies are enjoying a great job market currently. Word from regional centres is that for example developers are quitting their existing jobs, and taking on contracts or permanent gigs with companies in Auckland, Wellington, Australia and even the United States.

Why would they not if it means they’ll be paid Big City and overseas rates and salaries, while not having to up sticks and continue to enjoy a much lower cost of living in a regional town somewhere?

If you needed another example of how unaffordable accommodation shoots us in both feet, there it is. It’s the one important lesson from Silicon Valley that refuses to sink in.

Put simply, the magic of remote working and good collaboration tools restructuring how the world works. It’s tough luck for regional employers who will either have to match the money on the table or forego staff.

This situation is likely to continue for the next few years, and it’s not caused by “over reliance” on migrant labour in New Zealand as has been suggested. It’s us not understanding that we’re competing against companies in the giant Internet Economy, where national borders aren’t anywhere near as relevant as they were.

Take Amazon Web Services which lists just under 20,000 situations vacant on their careers site. Most of the jobs are for techies: AWS is looking to hire 10 software developers in Romania even.

There are thousands of jobs going at AWS in the US of course, but also in many different countries around the world. Many jobs are marked as “100 per cent remote” as well, especially for security consultants curiously enough. That’s just at one global tech giant. Now add the others.

If you are a techie, saying yes to AWS, Google, Microsoft or a similar organisation is of course a smart career move even if the job itself is suboptimal. A few years at Big G looks good on the CV and helps people’s careers internationally and locally.

That’s another reason smaller countries without global tech giants are at a disadvantage: they find it hard to compete for talent because even if they can match salaries, there aren’t the cool internet-scale projects to work on.

New Zealand being part of the Anglosphere is a boon and a bane. It gives us easy access to some of the richest economies in the world, but it also meant our talent was lured overseas in the past. Whether or not Covid-19 changes that remains to be seen but Britain at least seems to be off the OE list for now, thanks to its decision to live with the virus which looks like a catastrophe in waiting.

We often talk about how the tech industry isn’t diverse enough, and it’s true to some extent. One side to the lack of diversity is the stubborn monolingualness of New Zealand organisations which don’t acknowledge that there’s a much larger world waiting outside the Anglosphere.

To access that world, why not hire local people like recent immigrants who can act like linguistic and cultural bridges to talent in non-English speaking countries? Put that multiculturalism to work, in other words.

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