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Brislen on Tech: Digital Skills

Paul Brislen, Editor. 29 January 2021, 1:22 pm

How do you have a skills shortage and too many grads coming out of university? How do you have digital learning in the age of COVID that is actually a step backward from the digital learning we had when the kids were all sitting in class? What does it take to get action on all of this?

The release of this year's "Digital Skills Aotearoa" report from the Digital Skills Forum makes for grim reading. It's a joined up look at the entire skills pipeline, as one of the authors, NZTech Chief Executive Graeme Muller says, "from school to tertiary education, from education to employment, from within the market and from immigration." It should paint a coordinated picture of an industry that works with educators and trainers, as well as the students of course, to deliver the best mix of skills and personnel and opportunity.

Instead, we've gone backwards from the 2017 report.

The Road

"For example, suggestions included 'make sure every child is exposed to digital technology pathways' and 'actively encourage a more diverse group of Kiwis into digital technology. However, three years later, we find decreasing participation in digital technology in education and a less diverse workforce."

Industry says it's not getting the skills it needs (cybersecurity for example) and must rely on immigration (also a catch cry for universities of course, with its need for international students) which of course is not happening at the moment for obvious reasons.

Yet we live in a world where our digital toolsets, our understanding of the digital world is greater than ever and opportunities continue to abound.

Just look at the regional economic opportunity. Never mind working in the big city, fibre to the bach means you can set up shop in the regions and be just as connected (and have an arguably better lifestyle).

Or the hosting opportunity. New Zealand as a safe harbour home to content and files to be shipped around the planet via the various submarine cables we now have (balloonists need not apply).

Our industry and our policy makers, our educators and our staff are not well aligned. We don't have capital markets that understand the opportunity (unless it's a real estate play) and we don't have the regulatory level playing field that would encourage growth and development of the tech sector (again, unless you're in real estate you'll pay tax on your earnings, and there's no chance of offering shares to encourage employees into early stage companies because that's not allowed either) and our people are snapped up internationally whenever they get qualified (and the borders open, obviously).

All this is, thankfully, totally fixable. It just takes a strategic vision from on high (looking to you, government) and the willingness from those in the sector to step up and get involved. Thanks to all who have for this report - now we need to take it one step further.

I'd like to see R&D addressed. I'd like to see students encouraged into the tech disciplines (low fees, maybe we can look at a bonding system, better promotional work at school level of the benefits, better understanding of the upside that is better pay and working conditions). I'd like to see more tertiary tech-based training courses (more cybersecurity, more game development, more hardware courses).

To do all of that is perfectly within our grasp and now is the time to strike. The world is still fretting about masks and we can steal a march on the competition. While everyone else works out how to open up their economies we can take our open economy and put the foot down.

But it does take a massive change of heart in the tech industry. Those of us who work here are too complacent, too willing to pretend we don't need to engage with government and policy makers. I've had many conversations with tech company management about taking a leadership position in all of this and they generally all end with "yeah but that's not our role".  Government cannot do all of this in isolation, we need to step up and drive this. New Zealand's tech sector, we've planned the work, now it's time to work the plan.


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