Leroy Pohatu's trade tools are a Macbook, a company phone and a PC toolkit. The 22-year-old field engineer looks after the IT of eight schools in Auckland, including his alma mater Tāmaki College.
Kids at school often go up and sit next to him while he works. "They look at my screen and ask me questions, do you look after IT? Is it hard? How did you get the job?"
Māori and Pasifika make up 6.8 per cent of New Zealand's IT workforce, according to the 2019 Digital Skills Aotearoa report by industry body NZTech and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.
Of Māori -Samoan descent, Pohatu is one of them.
"Seeing my old teachers, my old mates. The opportunity of giving back to the community I was raised in, that's the coolest thing."
In his final year of high school, Pohatu had wanted to take a gap year to work and make money to buy a car, but a paid internship at local IT firm Fusion Networks came up. A few months into the job, something clicked.
"It gave me an idea, and the idea just grew."
Pohatu spent the next three years studying, earning three diplomas in tech support, systems administration, and cloud management at IT institute Techtorium. He went to classes in the morning and worked for Fusion in the afternoon.
Paid internships for high school students are rare. New Zealand's biggest tech internship programme Summer of Tech is reserved for tertiary students and fresh graduates. Every year, thousands apply but less than 20 per cent get a placement. In 2019, that number was 352.
Fusion's internship programme was born out of necessity four years ago, when CEO Andrew Gurr decided to build a workforce he couldn't find.
"Finding staff was incredibly expensive and time-consuming, and sometimes left us very vulnerable in terms of contracts with customers when we lost staff and couldn't replace them," he told the Herald.
Inspiration came from one of their new hires, a new graduate who did part-time IT work through university. He came highly recommended and started his first day work-ready and "twice as effective as the person he replaced".
With the idea, Gurr contacted Russel Dunn, deputy principal at Tāmaki College. "We were supporting their IT, but we weren't helping them in terms of student pathways into the tech sector," he said.
Four years on, some 40 high school students from lower decile regions have gone through Fusion internships across their New Zealand offices. Interns past and present now make up more than half their school IT support division, Gurr says, and attrition is nearly zero. "The success on the business side is undeniable. We've halved our HR costs."
Pohatu was one of their first interns, scouted from digital studies class at Tāmaki College. Around the country, 30 per cent of senior secondary school students took technology standards in 2019, but numbers have been dropping 2 per cent a year since 2015. For Māori, it's 4 per cent a year.
Many schools are short of qualified teachers. Only 7 per cent of teachers reported having enough knowledge and skills to teach the digital technologies curriculum, according to a 2019 Education Review Office study.
People with experience and knowledge have probably got more exciting careers in the tech sector "so it's been left up to staff with an interest to pick it up and run with it", said Dunn.
62 per cent of Tāmaki College students are Pasifika, 32 per cent Māori, and 1 per cent Pākehā. Their traditional pathways are sports, engineering or healthcare but few see themselves in technology.
"The whole internship is about giving students in our community opportunities they'd otherwise never have," Dunn said.
Pohatu's paid internship helped pay his bills and at home, like internet, and kept his AT HOP card topped up so he could get to and from school and work.
"It just wouldn't be possible otherwise," he said.
Covid-19 has hit home in Pohatu's Tāmaki, one of New Zealand's poorest regions where young people have had to leave school early to find work and support their families.
Demand for digital skills is high in a tech sector that is creating some 2000 jobs every year, with a median salary of $92,250. A large number of IT jobs are being advertised at all times but companies are struggling to hire and looking overseas to fill their ranks, says NZTech chief executive Graeme Muller.
Investment in developing IT staff here is low. Less than 10 per cent of training budgets at large companies and government agencies are spent on digital technology skills.
"What we're doing makes sense but it really annoys me that we're unique," says Gurr.
He took the problem to Hack Tāmaki last month, a 48-hour hackathon where local companies and techies work together on solutions to real-life challenges. Their answer? An online platform to match students with companies offering workplace experience.
"We want to build a community of businesses that want to try this method so we can help each other," Gurr said.
"It's not philanthropic because this has business value for us, but it's an important part of our social involvement. Even if they end up in different businesses, we don't care."
Pohatu was roped into the hackathon, where a third of participants were Māori and Pasifika. It was special, like entering a brave new world and finding his people there. His younger brother is a new intern, but none of his close friends are in technology.
"I met other Pacifika IT people, I saw Māori business owners," he says.
"It made me realise, this is actually possible. That could be me."