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Graeme Muller on Digital Skills

Graeme Muller, NZTech talks with Advocacy Update

AdvocacyUpdate: How would you describe the tech sector in New Zealand?

Graeme Muller: It has quite grey edges, so it’s difficult to say what’s in or out, but the way we look at it: it’s organisations that are creating and selling tech, whether it’s digital, biotech or high-tech manufacturing – the three main areas. It also includes the many firms that going through the process of digitalising – that’s our fourth interest area: helping businesses take up and use technology more efficiently.

AdvocacyUpdate: These days, it’s hard to know whether something is a technology product or not.

Graeme Muller: It helps to distinguish between whether people are buying the technology, or buying the service being delivered by the technology. In the case of Xero, for example, we buy the technology – or buy the licence to the technology – to help us with the service. In comparison, banks for example call themselves tech firms nowadays, but they are actually delivering a service on top of other people’s technology: they’re not actually
licensing you with the technology that’s being delivered.

We’re a very varied sector including things like agritech, high-tech manufacturing, robotics, biotechnology, sensors, high speed data, FinTech, HealthTech, artificial intelligence, the space industry. For all of these we need a really strong fibre backbone, and we need to push as fast as we can to high-speed mobile. Moving into 5G will allow more robotics and more machine-enabled equipment to operate. It’ll allow faster thinking time, processing time, and so on. That sort of connectivity is what we’re constantly working on. Then to get these things to work, you need clever people – and we’re not producing enough.

Digital skills are a big focus for us, because obviously every company in the country pretty much is going through some process of digitisation – the banks, the government departments and the big corporates like Fonterra and Air New Zealand – all employing the same sort of skilled talent that people like Datacom and Xero and IBM and Microsoft are employing. We’ve done really well at importing that talent into the country, but not so well
at developing our own home-grown talent. So, with Covid it’s a really good opportunity to reset, reset, rethink and try and create more local talent around that space.

AdvocacyUpdate: Given this broad environment, where are you going to focus your attention in 2021?

Graeme Muller: Fortunately, the Government has started an industry transformation program of work with the Economic Development Agency, which has become a good framework for a lot of interagency collaboration.

One of those industry transformation plans is for the digital technology sector, and another one is for the agritech sector. We have eight work streams around things like developing skills and talent, and private military participation and the tech workforce, and opportunities for businesses.
So now it’s a matter of how we get some of those programs to make change. We’ve produced a 100-page report on the nature of the digital skills in New Zealand, which includes a whole bunch of observations which allow us to think about, for example, deploying apprenticeships in digital technology rather than everyone having to go through that kind of a relatively vanilla process with academic degrees. There is definitely appetite from the supply and demand side for this. There’s also a need for more work experience as
people develop digital skills.

All of our arguments have been about opportunity cost and opportunity lost. Our opportunity lost is in not bringing more New Zealanders through on that journey. Lots of people around the world want to come to New Zealand and do digital jobs. We’ve had a massive international pipeline, and we can pick talent from around the world and bring them in. But we’ve been bringing in more talent than we’ve been developing here at home – so
that’s an opportunity lost.

AdvocacyUpdate: How will you progress the digital apprenticeships idea?

Graeme Muller: Well, it’s about creating a model with the Ministry of Education and Tertiary Education Commission and the industry whereby the student gets a job at the start of their training, and the time spent both in school and the workplace is integrated through the course. There are overseas examples of digital apprenticeships and we will probably look at
some of those. We are hoping to pilot it with some tech firms in Christchurch and possibly in South Auckland with the Pacific community, with maybe the Manukau Institute of Technology. It doesn’t have to be a large-scale programme – if we bring say a couple of hundred students through this way, then we’ve made a good increase on the numbers
coming through into the tech sector.

AdvocacyUpdate: There would be a fair bit of public approval for that course of action.

Graeme Muller: We haven’t surveyed the public, but we did a survey as part of the skills research of a couple of hundred tech firms, and there was overwhelming response that people would support something like that. Of course, when the rubber hits the road and someone has to pay someone, and they’re unskilled, it’s a lot harder. So, we know it’s not easy, but there’s enormous opportunity for us to grow digital skills in New Zealand.


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