The latest recommendation for fixing Australia’s tech talent shortage has come from none other than Microsoft co-founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates.
Speaking to StartupSmart, Airtree Ventures co-founder Daniel Petre recalled a dinner he had with Gates last year, when the topic of Australian tech skills came up. The pair have known each other for a long time, as Petre was once the former managing director and then vice president of Microsoft in Australia.
“He was in Australia for a bunch of stuff and I had him over to dinner as a friend, as much as someone can be a friend of Bill Gates,” laughs Petre.
“We were having dinner and talking about issues of talent acquisition in Australia and how we could maintain it. He noted there were a large number of foreign students in engineering and science faculties, and how it seemed our universities might struggle to function without them.”
“And he said it seems like the solution to the skills shortage would be to offer the top graduates from those faculties an Australian citizenship.”
This would increase the number of graduates who stay in the country instead of returning home, retaining talent and widening the local pool for tech companies. Petre believes the suggestion makes a lot of sense and is an “obvious thing to do”.
He also clarifies what Gates was suggesting would be unlike the already existing paths to permanent residency existing through systems such as the 186 visa; instead it would be a direct offer of an Australian citizenship.
The suggestion is similar to one made by Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes, which investor Steve Baxter relayed last week, however Cannon-Brookes’ suggestion involves seeking out the top graduates from international universities and enticing them here.
RedBalloon founder and Shark Tank investor Naomi Simson has also made a similar suggestion to Gates. When tweeting about Cannon-Brookes’ comments earlier this week, Simson asked: “what about offering International Students at Aussie Uni’s the same?”.
@SBXR “He said we should pick the top 50 universities in the world, and tell their graduates if they have good enough grades, they’re in, come to Australia,” What about offering International Students at Aussie Uni's the same? https://t.co/JmwACFLuPR
— Naomi Simson (@NaomiSimson) January 23, 2018
Husic backs skills shortage solutions
Outside of the constant discussion, speculation, and whataboutism surrounding the ongoing skills debate, the obvious question then becomes one of action. The government has continued to be lambasted over its handling of the 457 visa reforms and the country’s tech talent shortage, with shadow minister for innovation Ed Husic telling StartupSmart the skills shortage is one of the biggest issues facing the Australian tech sector.
“We’re not producing enough talent, and what we do have gets poached. The remainder can then call the shots in terms of salaries which drives up the costs for local businesses,” Husic, a staunch supporter of the Australian startup sector, says.
“That’s not even the startling thing. We’ve known about this for years and there’s been little done to tackle it. While there’s not a one size fits all solution, there are different things we can do.
“Clearly we need to find ways to strengthen the flow of skills coming out of Australian unis and other vocational pathways.”
Husic says local tech firms are being “suffocated” by the current government’s approach to immigration and 457 visas, calling last year’s changes an “absolute disaster” done without consultation within the sector. Petre agrees, but argues the issues stretch further than the startup and technology industries.
He worries the continual vocalisation of the issues from startup figureheads will begin to look “self-serving” and wants to ensure the discussion focuses on the very real issues facing all major industries in the country.
“Every job in every company will be underpinned by technology, and every company and every industry is going to need people who understand that technology,” he says.
“This is about fuelling the whole economy — technically trained people across a variety of skill sets means a better economy and standard of living. This is for healthcare, this is for construction, this is much more wide-ranging.
“It’s a pity our government is being dragged to the right thanks to dog whistling that ‘immigrants are bad’ from certain members of the party.”
Referring to Gates’ suggestion, Husic says he’s “not opposed to the idea”, and highlights Labor’s previous election policy that would involve offering extended residency to foreign students who wanted to work with local startups.
“We recognised this as an opportunity early on, and while I wouldn’t go so far to as to say we’re flattered Bill Gates noticed, this is something we’ve been thinking about,” Husic says.
Minister for jobs and innovation Michaelia Cash told StartupSmart in a statement the government is committed to working with schools, universities, and employers to identify skill gaps, but said there was no “instant fix” for the issue.
“We need to keep in mind that there is no ‘instant fix’ for skills shortages. Industry and government can work together to identify emerging skills needs and develop appropriate strategies – but this takes time,” Cash said.
“As a result of investments in STEM skills and capabilities made by Coalition Governments in the early 2000s, Australia is now a world leader in health and medicine, ICT, biotechnology, and nanotechnology and we have experienced subsequent significant growth in employment as a result of these investments.”
*This article was updated at 3.50PM on Friday to include comment from Michaelia Cash.