A more inclusive tech sector

Work is underway to introduce new pathways into tech careers but they all rely on companies willing to get involved and take on apprentices or graduate interns. By Graeme Muller.

The tech sector has an interesting diversity challenge. In some ways it is incredibly diverse with most tech firms or tech teams in organisations resembling the United Nations.

 For the past 10 years, with not enough graduates coming through the New Zealand education system companies have relied on immigration, bringing in around 3,500 to 4,500 highly skilled IT professionals from all over the world. However, only a few thousand Kiwis graduate each year and very few of those are what you would call diverse. 

To make matters worse, Kiwis haven’t aspired to tech careers and the data is disturbing. NZTech worked with the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to analyse the digital skills pipeline just before Covid.  

The results published in January 2021 showed that only four percent of tech workers are Māori, 2.8 percent Pasifika and 27 percent female. No data was available for neuro-diversity. 

 The research showed that the challenge starts at a young age, with only 0.5 percent of 12 year olds considering any sort of tech career, ranking tech jobs about number 45 on the list of jobs Kiwi kids are aspiring to.

At high school age the number of students taking subjects that would pathway into tech careers has been declining at around one percent compound annual growth rate over the past five years. In 2019, only 1,850 students left high school to start an IT degree. By this stage 24 percent are female, nine percent Māori and six percent Pasifika. 

There are many reasons why we all need to work on addressing this. For a start, with global shortages of people with digital skills it is crazy to leave half of the potential workforce sitting in the benches. Shortages are driving up costs, decreasing productivity improvements and limiting economic growth. 

Research has shown that tech firms with better diversity are more profitable. Understanding a much wider customer base leads to better products and services. With such a diversity of tech roles a more diverse tech team also creates a more effective and efficient team, lifting output. 

We need to collectively address the challenge of tech careers not attracting a diverse range of people. With the median pay in the tech sector now exceeding twice the national median salary, these high paying roles could lift whanau and entire cohorts of our society out of poverty in one generation. 

To help attract more young women, Māori, Pasifika and other groups not well represented in tech careers we all need to think about the culture within our organisation. What can we do to make our companies more inclusive?

What changes do we need to make to create a workplace where all staff can feel valued and be productive? No matter what size your organisation is, if you haven’t already developed a diversity and inclusion strategy you should consider how to do this now.

Work is underway to introduce new pathways into tech careers but they all rely on companies willing to get involved and take on apprentices or graduate interns.

 For example, digital apprenticeship pilots are underway where students can start learning the skills they will need to be successful while in Year 12 or 13 at school, while at the same time working part-time for a tech firm. This is a great way for businesses to bring in some smart young talent at a low cost that is wrapped in cultural support from their apprentice structure to make sure they are really engaged and effective.

These pilots have students on starting salaries more than three times the average of their local communities. While at the same time employers are getting access to junior talent that they can help develop far cheaper than recruiting via immigration. 

You see how neuro-diverse individuals can excell at certain tasks, how quiet staff might better understand certain customer needs or how a more empathetic approach might improve team dynamics and outputs. 

Or, to be completely hard-nosed about it, with a global shortage of digital skills, if you don’t work out how to evolve your business to be more inclusive and to attract people from a more diverse talent pool you risk getting priced out of the market. So get involved today. Check out Techhub.nz for ways to connect with schools and help inspire the next generation into tech.   

Graeme Muller is the chief executive of NZTech, a NFP organisation which brings together 20 tech associations and more than 1600 member organisations.

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