I have a confession to make … I just hired an engineer from London for my company. While I have been a vocal proponent for remaining headquartered in Australia and keeping our engineering base local, this is no longer a tenable strategy. There simply isn’t enough tech talent to satisfy the demands of both corporate Australia and the growing technology start-up ecosystem. It’s all well and good that we keep talking about how great the future will be for technology companies in Australia, but that future won’t eventuate if we drop the ball in the here and now.
Jonathan Barouch, founder of Local Measure, says the fact that the immigration department takes up to eight weeks to process a 457 application for a software engineer is a joke.
The policies in the Innovation Statement to address the talent gap and improve gender diversity are sound.
However, by the government’s own admission, many of its policies will take at least a decade to bear any fruit. So what can we do in the meantime to satisfy the demand for talented technical staff in Australian technology companies?
Draw talent to Australia
We have around 300,000 foreign students in our tertiary institutions, many from China and India who come to Australia to study degrees like software engineering and maths. We need to do a better job at selling Australia to these students as a permanent home. A Sydney University lecturer recently told me that historically Chinese students would come to study in Australia and then use that as a path to migrate. Anecdotally, she’s finding that many of the business and engineering students are now more excited by the prospect of being an entrepreneur back in China than by the idea of remaining in Australia.
If that is the case, we need to shift these students’ perceptions by showcasing the exciting companies and opportunities that exist locally. There has been a lot of debate about the merit of the government’s $28 million taxpayer-funded Innovation Statement marketing. Some of this money might be better spent outside Australia promoting our country as a destination to the world’s top tech talent and companies. We might have had a bigger bang for our buck by simply renting billboards on the 101 between San Francisco and Silicon Valley publicising jobs Down Under.
Make 457 visas simpler
Given all the talk about simplifying our 457 regime to help start-ups access critical talent, it’s surprising that we’ve yet to see any action. The fact that the immigration department takes up to eight weeks to process a 457 application for a software engineer is a joke. Technology companies in every other country are fighting for the same talent and we are missing out on the best and brightest because of government process.
I recently tried to move an engineer to Australia on a 457 visa. The process was time-consuming and expensive and took the full eight weeks to get approved. In stark contrast, we had an Australian employee organising an E3 visa to work in our US office at the same time. The process was able to be done online and his visa was approved on the spot at the US consulate. This seems like a perfect problem for the government’s Digital Transformation Office to tackle.
Send talent overseas
While it may sound counter-intuitive, we need to support some of our smartest to go overseas to gain valuable experience that can then be brought back home. In my company, Local Measure, we have team members who’ve had experience working in large technology companies in Silicon Valley, China and Europe as they scale. The amount of knowledge and proficiency they transfer to their colleagues significantly de-risks our business as we expand overseas.
Let’s create a program where there is an incentive in the first few years of returning to Australia after having worked in a qualifying technology company overseas. This might have the added benefit of attracting back some of Silicon Valley’s so-called “Aussie mafia”.
It is a very encouraging sign for the health of our ecosystem that so many people in the wider community are now talking about start-ups and innovation. In all of the excitement to lay the proper foundations for future growth let’s not forget about the issues facing our companies in the here and now.