Prisons, partners tapped as Datacom stretches to hire another 250

The good news: Our largest IT services provider, Datacom, has hired 220 staff since January as firms continue to accelerate their digitisation plans amid the pandemic.

The bad: The Auckland-based company would hire another 250 tomorrow, if it could, but is up against “the size of the talent pool”, its New Zealand MD Justin Gray says.

Said talent pool shrank in 2020, as Covid border closures meant that people from offshore filling tech roles (some 3683 in 2019, according to an NZTech report) dwindled to almost nothing, and Kiwis returning home only took up part of the slack.

The vacant roles at Datacom veer toward the more skilled, but include everything from entry-level skilled up to senior leadership positions. The likes of call centre staff jobs are not part of the mix.

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Some firms, having shed staff during the March and April lockdown panic, have now found that, with the benefit of hindsight, they tightened their belts too tightly – and are now trying to rehire staff in what has become a much tighter labour market.

For as with so many industries, pandemic border closures have revealed our tech sector has developed an over-reliance on imported workers, while local training has wilted.

Datacom, simply because it’s one of the largest homegrown players, has felt the IT labour shortage most keenly.

The IT services firm, whose foundations include the IT operation formerly owned by NZ Post, employs close to 7000 staff – around 3000 of whom are in NZ.

It is 60 per cent owned by the rich-list Holdsworth family, and 40 per cent by the NZ Super Fund, and draws most of its revenue from Australia, Asia and NZ.

Gray is focusing on the positive, however, pitching the pandemic as an opportunity to rebuild our local training efforts.

He says that at any one time, his company hosts up to 50 interns with its direct training efforts.

But he also highlights his company’s partnerships with three organisations who are seeking to draw more people into the technology industry. Some of Datacom’s support is financial, but it also offers advisory service, IT support, and free office space to support the programmes.

Jail break

One is Take2, also supported by the Tindall Foundation, Spark and others, has the slogan “Breaking the cycle of crime through tech” – which it seeks to achieve by offering prisoners 12 months of intensive training in software coding, and broader communication skills.

The newly-minted non-profit’s primary aim is to rehabilitate offenders by giving them the wherewithal to find meaningful work after their release, and offering them support services for at least two months.

That’s a public good, and a financial good for the taxpayer (Take2 says it costs $140,000 to incarcerate an individual, and that an average 15,000 prisoners are released per year – with 61 per cent reoffending within two years). But it should also help top up the labour funnel for the tech sector.

Datacom is also working with TupuToa, which is trying to get more Māori and Pasifika people into senior positions in corporate NZ, starting with internship and cadetship programmes that help companies diversify their workforces. And in the case of tech companies – which have low percentages of Māori and Pasifika staff overall – that also equates to an opportunity to enlarge their talent pool.

Similarly, Gray’s firm is working with Te Wānanga o Raukawa which offers online courses for Māori who want to upskill and enter the tech workforce.

Turn on immigration tap in the meantime

But as much as he’s a booster for these programmes, and efforts to boost the profile of technology in secondary and tertiary education, Gray says it will take years to foster new tech talent locally.

And he sees another Covid trend – people living in one hemisphere, but working for a company in another – as “just not sustainable from a wellbeing point of view”, as people work all hours of the night in an effort to compensate for timezone differences.

So the meantime, the Government should let more tech workers in, he says.

With no tech worker visa, NZTech, which has been working with MBIE on solutions, recently recommended IT companies try to get staff into NZ under the Other Critical Worker programme, which applies to roles that pay over $106,000 per year and can’t be filled locally.

Gray says Datacom has applied, but the number of staff it’s been able to get in through the programme is “in the tens” when his company need hundreds and, collectively, the tech sector is thousands short.

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