If the past two years have turned our societies, our daily routines and our supply chains upside down, two factors are key to getting us back on track. The first is technology.
It's technology that helped develop effective Covid vaccines in record time, enabled New Zealanders to access essential services virtually during lockdowns, and supported businesses to connect workers, communicate with customers and deliver new products and services.
The booming tech sector – now Aotearoa's second largest overseas revenue generator behind agriculture (according to the 2021 Technology Investment Network report) – also represents our biggest economic growth opportunity in a fast-digitising world.
That tech innovation wouldn't be possible without the second ingredient – people.
Yesterday we announced the winners of the 2021 Microsoft New Zealand Partner Awards. Without many skilled and creative people like the amazing teams behind the award-winning projects we honoured, we couldn't have achieved the huge transformation we've seen in such a short timeframe.
If we're to make the most of the opportunity provided by technology to grow our economy, we're also going to need to grow our talent base. But that doesn't mean just recruiting more overseas talent.
One of the things that stands out to me about this year's awards was the importance of diversity in boosting innovation and achieving great results. For the first time, 2021's awards asked partners to share how diversity and inclusion has supported their business.
A lot of (digital) ink has been spilled on the IT skills crisis. In conversations with Microsoft, many tech partners highlight the "talent issue" as their number one concern.
As Callaghan Innovation's Bruce Jarvis wrote recently: "Better equip New Zealand to fight in the global talent war or watch millions of dollars' worth of opportunity be set up elsewhere".
Many commentators have called for immigration policy change to enable more skilled workers to be recruited from overseas. However, the greatest challenge is not a talent issue – it's a diversity one.
Covid has highlighted New Zealand's reliance on both international travellers and international talent to support our economy. A reason often given for recruiting international talent is that diversity of perspectives and experience is good for business – which is absolutely true.
Microsoft's 2020 Culture of Innovation research conducted by IDC revealed that the companies who were seen as innovation leaders during the pandemic tended to have greater diversity across cultures, genders and generations.
Yet as our diversity figures show, we have the capacity to massively boost diversity of culture and experience without needing to look overseas first.
Just a quarter of New Zealand's tech workers (27 per cent) are women. Around four per cent are Māori. Less than three per cent are Pasifika. While overseas recruitment remains important, to ensure we have a strong pipeline of skilled talent – and retain it – our primary focus has to be reaching into more local communities.
Guy Littlefair, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Dean of Design and Creative Technologies at Auckland University of Technology, said in the Culture of Innovation report: "Rather than thinking of the job takers of the future, we need to be creating the job makers of the future."
Increasing representation of underserved communities in our tech sector doesn't just make us more resilient and innovative, helping New Zealand build back strong after Covid. Supporting equitable access is also the right thing to do.
Some of our partners are already doing great work to excite the next generation of tech stars about what careers in the tech sector look like, and are giving them the skills they need to succeed.
With its Ignite programme, PwC works with Microsoft to provide valuable on-the-job training and provide qualifications in digital technologies to apprentices from diverse backgrounds who want to get straight into work from school, or move into tech from other careers.
In 2020, Datacom joined Microsoft in working with leadership organisation TupuToa to provide career opportunities for Māori and Pasifika students. Microsoft has also been working with colleagues from Datacom to support Rea, a digital platform that provides digital skills training and coaching to help Māori and Pasifika rangatahi connect to employers and jobs in the tech sector.
Now, imagine what a whole sector working together can do. Microsoft recently announced the #10KWāhine initiative, which is aimed at bringing partners like these together to train, upskill and create job opportunities in tech for 10,000 women.
Increasing diversity isn't up to just underserved communities to solve. It's everyone's responsibility to work together on creating more opportunities. As someone who hasn't come from a technical background (I started out working in communications), I am also living proof that the tech sector has plenty of room for all kinds of skills, and career change is possible.
As we move into 2022, solving the diversity challenge is the number one opportunity for our tech sector – and it's the one that will create the greatest change, long-term. So let's reframe the conversation on "talent" to be about "diversity" – on creating more pathways for a diverse range of people in Aotearoa, in a way that creates a much more sustainable pathway forward for our country.
Why wait for borders to open? Opening eyes and doors to support more New Zealanders into our local tech industry is something we can all achieve now.