The Press, September 2010

Sonny Bill Williams was the focus of the tens of thousands of kids watching Canterbury play Wellington in the ITM Cup last Saturday, many dreaming of growing up to be famous professional rugby star.

I can’t imagine many were having similar dreams of becoming stars of the industry in which I am involved - technology. The fact that thousands of kids aren't dreaming about being the next Sam Morgan is a concern for New Zealand, and a big part of the solution is marketing.

New Zealand envisages an economic future based more on intellectual properly based industries, and less heavily weighted to the primary sector. But we are woefully short on talented young people going into the industry.

NZ ICT, a group that represents the industry, issued a survey late in 2009 that found major staff shortages. In a time of heavy recession, 83% of the companies they interviewed were having trouble recruiting qualified, skilled and experienced staff. Initiatives like the government’s ultra-fast broadband rollout will exacerbate the problem as more specialist skills will be required.

A study released two weeks ago by recruitment company Absolute IT shows that the pressure is just going to grow. 75% of businesses surveyed were planning to recruit new permanent technical staff, which they estimated would create another 1300 positions in the ICT sector.

Not only is there insufficient experienced people in the market, not enough young people are studying technical subjects. New Zealand is producing more than enough lawyers and accountants, but far too few technologists and engineers.

Government estimates have put the numbers of students undertaking technology-based studies at half of what is needed to meet future need. Some of that gap can be filled by immigration, but it still leaves a big hole in the sector.

It’s not as if the technology sector is poorly performing or unattractive financially. The recently released Technology Investment Network (TIN) top 100 index put the total revenue of our leading tech companies at $6.7 billion, not an insignificant chunk of our GDP. Big companies like Fisher & Paykel Healthcare ($503 million) and Datacom ($667 million) feature on the TIN 100, as do cool firms like Trade Me and Weta Digital.

Of course the problem is well understood and the Government and its agencies have put some effort into turning the situation around. For example, the fabulously titled Electro-Technology Industry Training Organisation (ETITO for short) invested in a promotional campaign called “ICT the smart future” to create a more positive perception of the industry as an employer.

The trouble is you can’t make technology cool by telling people it is. Kids and their parents have to see it and experience the breadth, diversity and creativity of the sector for themselves to understand it offers incredible opportunities.

At present law and accounting is Sonny-Bill to the technology sector’s Andrew Olrenshaw (the sturdy Canterbury prop). It is the industry’s firms themselves that need to turn that around. This will do a lot more to encourage young people into the tech sector than any number of government programmes and guidance counsellors bleating on about the tech sector.

A key is tech companies understanding how big a part brand plays in attracting young people into the sector. The 2008 JRA HR Policies and Practices Survey showed that 47% of firms thought that their brand, i.e. their reputation in the market, was the most important factor in enabling them to attract talent.

Most technology companies are exporters, and consequently very focussed on the extremely tough challenge of competing effectively in big offshore markets. They tend to keep their heads down and do little to raise their profile in their home markets, as this has little effect on sales. Some have also been sold to international companies who restrict their ability to reach into the local community.

A greater realisation of how important their brand is to attracting and retaining good people, and encouraging young people into training, is crucial. Why would a talented engineering student want to risk their career on an unknown quantity and why would parents want to encourage their kids into professions where they don’t see a lot of cool companies with exciting prospects?

This doesn’t mean our tech companies need to be out there in the media every day, but it does mean they need to be a little more open, and willing to be profiled. It also means opening up their facilities for people to visit, and reaching into schools and community organisations to build links and improve understanding.
A number of firms are already doing this, but more need to be willing to become tall poppies.

For the tech companies themselves, stronger local brands not only helps with their ability to recruit talent, it helps with other stakeholders. Potential investors, suppliers and government funding bodies all pay attention to organisations they see doing well.

Tech has the potential to be the Sonny Bill of employment prospects in New Zealand – big, fast and exciting. Its’ members just need to be a little less modest and prop-like.

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